Invention is the Mother of Necessity

Inventions arise when there is an unmet market need. Inventors who perceive a unmet need are motivated to fulfill it due to economic rewards of inventing, such as money or fame. Some inventions fit this path, like the cotton gin and the steam engine. Necessity is the mother of invention–as they say–or is it?

What if the opposite is also true?

When Nikolaus Ott built his first gas engine, in 1866, horses had been supplying peoples land transportation needs for nearly 6,000 years, supplemented increasingly by steam-powered railroads for several decades. There was no crisis in the availability of horses, no dissatisfaction with railroads.

What if “many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind?” This question is explored in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.

When invention is the mother of necessity, the inventor finds an application for the invention after it is invented. And, “only after it had been in use for a considerable time did consumers come to feel that they ‘needed’ it.” Also, a device may be invented for one purpose, but eventually it is adopted in wide use for other,unanticipated purposes. Diamond says:

It may come as a surprise to learn that these invention in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.

In addition to the Ott engine example above, Diamond provides several other examples, one of which is Edison’s phonograph. When Edison created the phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses for the invention, such as preserving the last words of dying people and recording books for blind people to hear. However, the invention was later adopted for playing music, which Edison objected to as a debasement from the serious uses he intended.

Early versions of inventions often are not ready for use. Ott’s first engine was “weak, heavy, and seven feet tall, [and] it did not recommend itself over horses.” As Diamond says, “Inventors often have to persist at their tinkering for a long time in the absence of public demand because early models perform too poorly to be useful.”

The view that invention is the mother of necessity aligns with the examples where significant inventions were develop by hobbyists and English clergy.  And, it fits with Chris Dixon’s assertion that “What the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.”