Inventing the Bicycle: Why Did It Take So Long?

When discovering a solution to a problem, it is not uncommon to think, “Why didn’t I think of this earlier?” The question arises with inventions in general: “Why didn’t someone invent this earlier?”

Jason Crawford attempts to answer that question for bicycles in an post titled, “Why did we wait so long for the bicycle?” He considers a number of possibilities, such as technology factors, design iteration, the quality of roads, competition from horses, and economic factors.

Crawford dates early references to human powered four wheel vehicles to the 1400s. He says it wasn’t until 1817 that that a two wheel ancestor to the modern bicycle was invented by Karl von Drais, which he called Laufmaschine, or “running machine. ” It had a wood frame, no peddles, and was powered by pushing off the grounds with one’s feet. Drais was an aristocrat with free time to tinker.

But the key advance over the Laufmaschine was the addition of peddles, which didn’t arrive for decades (maybe between 1839 and 1860).

U.S. Patent 59,915 for a “Velocipede” issued in 1866.

And chains and gearing reportedly didn’t arrive until still later in the 1880s.

Crawford, considers whether the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently to allow the modern bicycle to become an adjacent possible. In other words, maybe “advanced metalworking was needed to make small, lightweight chains and gears of high and consistent quality, at an acceptable price—and that no other design, such as a belt or lever, would have worked instead.” Further, maybe inflatable (pneumatic) tires, which arrived around 1888, were important.

However, Crawford discounts the technology cause, at least somewhat, after considering other inventions, such as the cotton gin, and the flying shuttle, that took a long time to arrive and their prior invention didn’t appear to be limited by the state of technology.

Crawford concludes the need for economic surplus was one of the main contributors to the delay in the arrival of the bicycle. Nassim Talab has also noted this when he said, “Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation.” Talab notes that many inventions originated from the English clergy, whom had extra time on their hands.

Crawford says, “it seems that there needs to be a certain level of surplus to support the culture-wide research and development effort that creates inventions.” He also notes that “Maybe GDP per capita just has to hit a certain point before people even have time, attention and energy to think about new inventions that aren’t literally putting food on the table, a roof over your head, or a shirt on your back.”

This fits with Nicola Tesla’s explanation of the importance of having time to both develop ideas and let them incubate, when he said, “After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head.”

Inventing is probably facilitated by (1) sufficient technology advancement to support the invention and adoption of the invention (i.e. the invention and its adoption is within the adjacent possible) and (2) sufficient economic surplus so that persons have time for thinking and tinkering.

Inventing Play-Doh: Repurposing an Obsolete Product

History provides numerous examples of what could be called “accidental” inventions– inventions that were discovered or developed for one problem or purpose while the inventor was working on something else. Examples include penicillin and the slinky, among reported others.

An article at the Smithsonian explains the origins of Play-Doh. The creation of the Play-Doh material was not an accident. Instead the product owner found a new use for an existing product.

The existing product was a compound originally used for wiping and removing soot from wallpaper. Demand was falling for this product as fuel sources for heating moved from dirtier coal to cleaner oil, gas, and electricity. Joseph McVicker’s company selling the wallpaper cleaner was struggling when his sister-in-law Kay Zufall, a nursery school teacher, found children liked molding the pliable compound into various shapes. Play-Doh as a childern’s product was born.

Zufall reportedly coined the Play-Doh product name as well.

Zukfall, as a teacher, saw the world and the product differently from her perspective working with children. Something that was probably not obvious to McVicker. This is an example of an idea born not from solitude, but from a mix of perspectives.

Companies with an Inventor CEO Produced Higher Quality Innovation, Study Finds

A recent study, reported by HBR, found that companies with a CEO who was named as an inventor on at least one patent, were awarded more patents and those patents were more commercially valuable and scientifically influential than patents granted to companies led by non-inventors. Further the study found that the patents of inventor CEO led companies were more likely to be radical and breakthrough in nature.

The study found evidence that the CEO Inventor connection to quality innovation could be causal:

“We found that, relative to the control group of transitions, the output and impact of patents significantly declined after the departure of an Inventor CEO. This decline in innovation activity occurred mainly in the technology classes where the outgoing Inventor CEOs had their experience, again pointing to the direct influence of an Inventor CEO on their firm’s innovation success.”

The authors of the study suggest that the better innovation results of Inventor CEO led companies “can be explained by an Inventor CEO’s superior ability to evaluate, select, and execute innovative investment projects related to their own hands-on experience.”

Troubles Not Foreseen at the Beginning

During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s army was positioned outside of Boston, which was occupied by the British. As explained in David McCullough’s book 1776, George Washington was facing troubles in terms of money, gun powder, guns, and troop readiness and numbers. Winter was coming, and some of the soldiers’ enlistments were ending, leaving the need to convince soldiers to reenlist or to be replaced by new recruits.

Washington, lamenting that he did not attack Boston earlier, at one point, recounted that if he had known what he was getting into he would not have accepted the command. He said:

“I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting of a command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket upon my shoulders and entered the ranks, or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience, had retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam.”

Ultimately, Washington secured Dorchester Heights which gave him a superior position over Boston and the British. This resulted in the British withdrawing from Boston.

Many undertakings do not rise to the level that war entails. However, doubts are common when facing issues not for seen at the beginning, no matter the endeavor.

Is There a Market for the Invention?

“[T]he lesson Edison drew from the experience was that invention should not be pursued as an exercise in technical cleverness, but should be shaped by commercial needs.”

Thomas Edison is an inventor famous for his long running electric light invention among many others. Edison accumulated over 1000 patents in his life time. His life and work is covered in Randall Stross’ book The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Tomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World.

Early in his career, while working as a telegraph operator, Edition invented on the side. According to Stross, “Edison filed patent applications as fast as the ideas arrived.” The first patent application that Edison filed was for a legislative chamber vote recorder (U.S. Patent No. 90,646). The vote recorder could shorten the time it took to tabulate votes by hours.

The invention provided buttons at each member’s desk and the chamber’s speaker could see running totals for “aye” and “nay” on twin dials.

However, there was no interest in the Capital for the invention. Stross describes a Capital insider’s reaction to the invention as “undisguised horror.” Stross continues: “The minority faction would not embrace an expedited voting process because it eliminated the opportunity to lobby for votes, nor would the majority want a change, either.”

Stross concludes, “The vote recorder was a bust, and the lesson Edison drew from the experience was that invention should not be pursued as an exercise in technical cleverness, but should be shaped by commercial needs.”

A Technique for Producing Ideas

“After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head,” said Nikola Tesla. Tesla calls this the incubation period, which precedes direct effort on the invention. Science writer, Steve Johnson, called this a slow hunch. And, in his 1940 publication, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Young also calls it incubation as a part of the metal digestive process.

Young lays out a five step process for producing ideas. He says that:

“the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords;… that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is effective use of any tool.”

Young asserts the an idea “is nothing more or less than a combination of old elements.” He continues “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”

Step 1: Gather Material

The first step is to gather raw material. Young says that we constantly try to dodge the work of gathering raw material because its “a terrible chore.” You should gather both material specific to the problem at hand and general material.

Regarding general material, wide curiosity and exploration of the world is the rule. Galileo’s invention of the pendulum clock was the product of Galileo’s experiences and cross-disciplinary studies over 58 years. Similarity, Young says every really good creative person in advertising (his field) has two notable characteristics:

“First, there was no subject under the sun which he could not easily get interested…Every facet of life has fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.”

Young said ideas in advertising result from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events. He says:

“The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in that pattern making machine, the mind, the more chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas.”

The material gathering is a life long job.

Step 2: Active Mental Digestion

In the second step, you actively work the information over in your mind. “What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over…with the tentacles of the mind.” He says after a while you will reach a hopeless stage where “Everything is a jumble in your mind, with no clear insight anywhere.” This is where you move to the third step.

Step 3: Incubation, Put It Out of Your Mind

In the “third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature” and put it out of your mind. This is the step where Tesla describes he  “may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of [his] head.” Young says “What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.”

Step 4: The Idea Appears

Young says that if you really did steps 1-3 properly, in the fourth step, the idea will seem to appear out of nowhere. It will come to you when you are least expecting it.

Step 5: Refinement

In the last step you refine the idea to work in the real world conditions and constrains at issue.

While Young’s field is advertising, the process appears applicable to idea generation generally. Read Young’s full work for more details on the process and stories that accompany it.

Churchill on Active Rest and Deep Play as a Complement to Work

“the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.” -Winston Churchill.

RestDuring the First World War, Winston Churchill proposed a naval attack on the Dardanelles, a strait that provided a sea route to the Russian Empire. But the attack was repelled. Following the navel attack, an amphibious landing was launched on the Gallipoli peninsula of the Dardanelles with the aim of capturing the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. But after eight months of fighting and many casualties on both sides, the land campaign was abandoned.

Churchill was demoted after the Gallipoli campaign. He then resigned in November 1915 and left London for the Western front.

Alex Pang reports in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, that Churchill took up painting after the Gallipoli Campaign as a form of rest. Churchill explained the appeal of painting in his book Painting as a Pastime. Churchill said “It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest.” Instead, “A new field of interest must be illuminated.” He continued “the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.”

Churchill further said:

The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring, it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.

Churchill concludes “The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man.”

Pang describes Churchill’s painting is a form of deep play. Deep play is a form of rest. Deep play is an activity that is rewarding on its own but takes on additional layers of meaning and personal significance.

Pang says an activity becomes deep play when it has at lest one of four features: (1) it is mentally absorbing, (2) it “offers players a new context in which to use some of the same skill that they use in their work,” (3) it “offers some of the same satisfaction as work, but it also offers different, clearer rewards thanks to differences in media or scale or pace,” and (4) it provides a living connection to the player’s past.

Pang says “this combination of absorption, use of skills in new context, similar satisfactions through different means, and personal connection makes deep play a powerful break from work…”

Pang’s describes that his book “is a book about work.” Which appears paradoxical. But, Pang argues “rest is not work’s adversary,” but instead “rest is work’s partner.” The book is an interesting tour of the various activities and practices that can help us get the most out of our opportunities for rest. Complement Pang’s book with Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

Mark Twain on New Ideas and the Need for Novelty Searches

“Then it occurred to me that as I was not well acquainted with the history of the drama [and] it might be well for me to make sure that this idea of mine was really new before I went further.” -Mark Twain

MarkTwainVol2In the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Twain recounts the time when he came up with an idea for what he thought was a new play.

He said, “One day a splendid inspiration burst in my head and scattered my brains all over the farm…” He continued, “That wonderful inspiration of mine was what seemed to me to be the most novel and striking basic idea for a play that had ever been imagined.”

He then says that “I was going to write that play at once, and astonish the world with it; and I did, indeed, begin upon the work immediately.”

But then he realized that he should investigate whether, in fact, this idea for the play was new. He said, “Then it occurred to me that as I was not well acquainted with the history of the drama [and] it might be well for me to make sure that this idea of mine was really new before I went further.”

Twain wrote Hammond Trumbull, a person knowledgable in plays, to ask whether Trumbull had ever heard of Twain’s idea used on stage.

The response came back from Trumbull and:

It covered several great pages of foolscap written in Trumbull’s small and beautiful hand, and the pages consisted merely of a list of titles of plays in which that new idea of mine had been used, in about sixty-seven countries. I do not remember how many thousand plays were mentioned in the list. I only remember that he hadn’t written down all the titles, but had only furnished enough for a sample. And I also remember that the earliest play in the invoice was a Chinese one and was upwards of twenty-five hundred years ago.

Turns out the idea was old and well known.

Whether the idea is for a play, for a new invention, or other creative work, you may want to search to see whether the idea is, in fact, new.

Opportunities for Entrepreneurs and Employees

“[C]omputers are complements for humans, not substitutes. The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.” -Peter Thiel.

ZeroToOneIn the mid-2000’s, one of PayPal’s biggest problems was that it was loosing $10 million to credit card fraud every month. Since it was processing hundreds of transactions per minute, it was impossible to manually review each one.

At first PayPal tried to create a fully automated system to detect fraud in realtime and cancel the fraudulent transactions. But the fraudsters quickly learned which transactions got canceled and changed their tactics to avoid the fraud system.

PayPal solved the fraud problem by taking a hybrid approach where the computer would flag suspicious transactions and human operators would make the final call whether the transaction was legitimate. After implementing the hybrid approach PayPal turned a profit for the first time.

In Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel challenges the proposition that computers and machines will take all the jobs. “Computers are complements for humans, not substitutes. The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.”

Thiel provides another example involving LinkedIn. He says, “Recruiting is part detective work and part sales: you have to scrutinize applicants’ history, assess their motives and compatibility, and persuade the most promising ones to join you. Effectively replacing all those functions with a computer would be impossible.” Yet LinkedIn aimed to change the way recruiters did their job, rather than replace them. Today, more than 97% of recruiters use LinkedIn.

Thiel notes that in 2012, one super computer was able to identify a cat with 75% accuracy after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos. He says “That seems impressive—until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly.” He concludes that humans and computers are not more or less powerful than each other, but rather they are categorically different. Whether this remains to be true far in the future, it appears true at this time.

Thiel says that “the future valuable companies in the future won’t ask what problems can be solved with computers alone. Instead, they’ll ask: how can computers help humans solve hard problems?

AverageIsOverTyler Cowen makes a similar argument in Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Cowen cites a military general who remarked that “Our number one manning problem in the air force is manning our unmanned platforms.” According to the Air Force, it takes 168 workers to keep an unmanned Predator drone in the air for 24 hours.

Cowen says that “As intelligent-analysis machines become more powerful and more commonplace, the most obvious and direct beneficiaries will be the humans who are adept at working with computers and with related devices for communications and information processing.” He continues, “If a laborer can augment the value of a major tech improvement by even a small bit, she will likely earn well.”

However, STEM is not the whole story. Cowen asks “Does anyone envy the job prospects of a typical newly minted astronomy PhD?” Citing the fact that Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major, Cowen says, “The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key, not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake.”

Apart from certain STEM fields, Cowen also sees marketing and management as important to the future economy.

The Wright Brothers on Taking Risks

“The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks,” said Wilbur Wright.

WrightBrothersThe process of inventing the airplane and testing it carried risks. However, as David McCullough writes in his book The Wright Brothers, “caution and close attention to all advanced preparations were to be the rule for the brothers.”

He continued, “They would take risks when necessary, but they were not daredevils out to perform stunts and they never would be.” In addition to the brothers’ study of flight attempts of others and the manner that birds fly, the brothers took many cautious steps in preparation for their first flight experiences.

The brothers realized that their home town of Dayton, Ohio was not ideal for flight experiments. Instead, they sought a location with consistent winds and soft sand to test their machine.

Wilbur first inquired with Octave Chanute, an engineer, for advice on where to conduct flying experiments. But the locations in California and Florida that Octave knew of were “deficient in sand hills” for soft landings. Instead, Octave suggested the coasts of South Carolina or Georgia might be better.

Wilbur Wright inquired with the United States Weather Bureau about the prevailing winds around the country. The Bureau responded with records of monthly wind velocities of more than one hundred weather stations around the country. A spot called Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina stood out.

But Wilber would not rely on the weather data alone, he wanted confirmation from someone there at Kitty Hawk. Wilbur wrote to the head of the Weather Bureau at Kitty Hawk. A reply confirmed that there was “a stretch of sandy land one mile by five with a bare hill in center 80 feet high, not a tree or bush anywhere to break the evenness of the wind” and the “winds were always steady, generally from 10 to 20 miles velocity per hour.”

Having settled on a suitable location, the brothers would not start out with a powered plane, but an unpowered version. They could use the wind at the sand hill to test the equilibrium and control of the plane before adding engine power. Wilbur said:

“I have my machine nearly finished. It is not to have a motor and is not expected to fly in any true sense of the word. My idea is merely to experiment and practice with a view to solving the problem of equilibrium. I have plans which I hope to find much in advance of the methods tried by previous experimenters. When once a machine is under proper control under all conditions, the motor problem will be quickly solved. A failure of a motor will then mean simply a slow descent and safe landing instead of a disastrous fall.”

McCullough recounts that Wilbur stressed to his father that Wilbur “did not intend to raise many feet from the ground, and on the chance that he were ‘upset,’ there was nothing but soft sand on which to land.” Wilbur further said “The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”

Wilbur even went so far as to assure his father that he was taking “every precaution” about his drinking water in the Outer Banks.

Read more about the ups and downs of the Wright Brothers’ work in McCullough’s book, which is a worthy read.