Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Origin of R&D

Today I started Evan I. Schwartz’s page-turning historical account of the invention of the television: The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television. I can tell you that it’s a solid read as I’m over 160 pages into it and I’m a slow reader. But between this work and Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, the economics of invention have been weighing heavily on my mind. Their words are driving me to conclude a take on innovation that they would surely describe as heartless, while I call it hopeful.

Diamond and Schwartz have similar views of technology. In GGS, Diamond points out that most inventions were created by tinkers—people who were merely curious about the world around them. Technological advancement isn’t generated by necessity, as the saying goes; it’s generated by inquisitive people in a free society.

The invention of television offers a powerful example: Philo Farnsworth was a curious genius, determined to make this new wonder. As Diamond would surely point out, Farnsworth was driven by intellectual obsession, not a lust for profit. Schwartz uses Farnsworth as a romantic symbol to drive home a point: in the 20s and 30s, heartless, greedy companies crowded out “lone inventors” and forced them to extinction. “Corporations now saw scientists, engineers, and inventors as property whose minds could be systematically milked for their ideas.” (p167)

Schwartz implies the culture of creativity was taken from the people and transplanted (and sterilized) to the corporation. The overall tone of the work embodies a definite hatred of large companies. Diamond seems to think along the same lines: the heartless pursuit of profit isn’t needed for invention; impassioned individuals can do a fine job.

Now there’s a lot of merit to what each these authors are saying. Freedom is the cornerstone to innovation for it allows new and radical ideas to be tested and tried. I wouldn’t be surprised if more major inventions were created by the passionate than the profit-seeking. I wouldn’t be taken aback if I discovered firms made inventing seem less wondrous because a scientist was now concerned about deadlines, company brass and corporate culture. But I would argue that this is a good and inevitable thing.

Schwartz describes Farnsworth as “the last lone inventor.” There’re two was that can be wrong, depending on how you define as “lone.” If we take “lone” to mean the main source of intellect behind an invention, than Farnsworth wasn’t the last one. From Mr. Popeil to the hundreds of independent computer enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s all invented things on their own. If we add just one more person (technically not “lone” but still a cultural and physical departure from some kind of corporate technology factory), we would have to include the Steves who created the first personal computer in their garage.

The other way to take “lone” reveals an interesting way to think about technology. Let’s define a “lone inventor” as an independent individual who created a new device solely with the tools available to society at large. If I go to Radio Shack and build a new robot from parts I got at the store, I’m a lone inventor. If I need my friend Ben to make a special part, I’m not a lone inventor because I needed someone else to help. Again, Farnsworth was not a “lone inventor.” He enlisted a local geologist to help discover the right coating for screen interior. His brother-in-law, Cliff, blew the special glass tubes. Cliff had to learn the art from a local glass blower. The “lone inventor” had half a dozen lab assistants. Farnsworth was not alone.

Increasingly, this is the story of modern inventions. Because modern inventions are really new combinations of existing technology, melding these components often requires unique parts (invention is rarely a matter of putting together a big jigsaw puzzle). Creating these parts require specialized knowledge and because a single person can only know so much, getting all this knowledge requires more people. As technology becomes more advanced, more knowledge (and thus more people) is needed. This is why the invention of the wheel would’ve required just one person, but inventing the television and modern car required several.

The more people that are needed, the less likely a single “tinker” can get the job done. Sure, she may be able to pull together the needed knowledge from family and friends but as technology advances, finding those people and getting them to set aside the time to make that special thing becomes harder and harder. The increasing difficulty to invent makes it less likely an inventor/hobbyist will create in his spare time, “just for fun.”

But the corporation acts as a coordination mechanism by offering incentives (salaries) for specialists to gather and collaborate. And because inventing is paired with a steady paycheck, creators have the time to go through the difficult process of creating, instead of doing it in their spare time. But to generate the revenue for paychecks, companies and inventors must seek the most promising avenue of profit. Necessity becomes the mother of invention once more.

Of course, not all inventions require this institutional framework. Independent inventors will always exist. But it will be harder and harder to invent as it requires more knowledge and time to pull it off. The possibility that our society will see another Edison—another that creates hundreds of revolutionary inventions—is highly unlikely. Surely that person would have to command a breadth and depth of science they would rival the collective knowledge of our greatest universities. More likely, the future holds a communal pursuit of knowledge, one built on liberty and competition, where the brightest minds are attracted from all over the world. Racial, gender, ethnic and religious barriers are torn away so that the best minds can work together for a better tomorrow. And, oh yes, for lots and lots of money.

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