A data based look at how innovations came about through all of human history
OMG are you serious, I've been compiling almost the exact same kind of list 😂
What I'm focusing on is the links, with the eventual goal of using the data to make a visual tech tree. I'm a bit confused about your version — did you explicitly encode the links between innovations? If so, how?
Did you ever heard of the old British TV "Connections" series?
Its background idea is exactly the same.
Recently, Top Gear's Richard Hammond revitalized it:
Wow, what a list! Took me a while just to read a small part of it, I can’t imagine how long it took to compile.
Fascinating. But a small point and a big one.
First, with energy, the big story isn't experiments with static. It's cooking and heating water for home use--how you make fire to boil water, what you use for fuel. This was incredibly important, fretted about, and subject of a great deal of innovation. It plays a major part in Robert Allen's account of why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain. Britain suffered a 'timber shortage'--not enough easily-accessible wood to heat city-dweller's furnaces, leading to a shift at the lower end of the spectrum to smelly coal. Which led to improvements in coal hearths and heating which in turn allowed people to a) want coal, and b) know how to use coal.
The second problem stems from this. The problem with any kind of long-term accounting of historical trends will become apparent if you (as I once did) try to read everything about a particular subject from say 1650 to 1850. It's possible from 1650 to 1770. It becomes increasingly harder from 1770 to 1800--there's a LOT more sources. Then, after 1800 or so, there are just so many sources that it boggles the mind.
Why? More people, sure. But also cheaper printing, so more pages per person. Also it's more recent, so things survive. And these problems get even harder the longer you go back.
The other problem is--how do we know about an innovation? Well, the ones we track here are only the ones we can track. We are missing the thousands of little tiny innovations that may get missed when we open up our aperture a lot. We miss all the little tricks of tacit skills--the trade secrets--the algorithms that were put in place to do work.
Now, directionally--this is all correct. Something big did happen around the 18th century--some kind of hinge from Malthusian temporary growth to more continuous growth. I personally favor your theory that it has something to do with population thresholds. I was influenced in this by Geoffrey West's book Scale. My own Ph.D. I saw often as trying to figure out the cultural preconditions for an open, dense society. My point--which I was never able to really prove--was that people in Britain developed a set of impersonal interpersonal strategies--clubs, pubs, coffeehouses etc.--that let them developed useful connections in what my advisor James Vernon called the 'Society of Strangers' of modernity.
Very curious to see this as a longer project!
Great work! I read A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge this year (great read), and this essay reminded me of it. Without spoiling too much, a space faring civilization tries to help a non-space faring civilization by trying to update their tech. However, the end game innovation couldn't be reached right away without going through prerequisite tech (like smelting steel) that required other prerequisite tech (like testing ore purity).
It's a small part of that book, but contextualized for me your point that every invention rests upon (until now) innumerable other inventions/innovations.
It's interesting that you appear leave out ecology and environmental science. But maybe I need to look more closely!
Does the idea of innovation have a particular social and ideological niche? These sciences are socially transformative, involve novel
use of technology, etc. So
not unlike the others.
There's a lot in biology that's possibly hard to track. It's just nuts how many innovations happen in bio & medicine.
This is very fun and fantastic though.
I really enjoyed this essay! This essay brought to mind the work of The Roots of Progress organization.
It would be interesting to know how the establishment of patent offices among the various countries impacted the growth of innovation.
This part really caught my attention: "this shows how innovation suddenly became much more of a real phenomenon towards the 18th century and after!"
This is not surprising to me.
Jefferson called them, "the three greatest men that had ever lived."
Francis Bacon's work, Novum Organum, was published in 1620
Isaac Newton's work, The Principia, was published in 1687
John Locke's works, Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government, were published in 1689 and 1690.
It took some time for the ideas in these books to spread substantially. But when they finally did, they caused many mental "shackles" to drop. A precondition of widespread innovation is a free mind.
This was a fantastic post! We don't even really know the extent of what we can learn from formalizing our knowledge of progress in science and innovation.
Are you familiar with Brian Arthur’s nature of technology? It provides a solid theoretical basis for your kind of data-driven analysis
Hi Rohit, this article also kind of similar to what packy mckormick wrote few weeks ago about exponential innovation growth as against the death of innovation as compared to earlier centuries. Enjoyed reading it 👌
Wondering where TRIZ (aka the theory of inventive problem solving), and it's very helpful contradictions to solutions matrix,...fits in?
This is fascinating and, yes, very impressive work!! I love when "big picture" doesn't have to also mean "vague." :)
I wonder how much innovations being lost to time matters. Take the fax machine, which was big for around 50 years. If there had been a technology that was used for 50 years, but in 900AD, would it have made your list? I doubt it.
I don’t want to be rude but aren’t there two famous Alexander Bains. The inventor and the philosopher. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Bain_(philosopher)