Monday, November 18, 2013

Thinking about innovation and inventions

The Atlantic magazine for November has an article on the 50 greatest inventions since the invention of the wheel. James Fallows provides an interesting taxonomy for the inventions.

I am not sure that I fully agree with the idea behind the article. It seems to miss the idea of accumulation of innovations and deepening of technology that make an idea more and more workable.

It also seems to miss the idea of technological systems. In order to make electrical distribution commercial, it was necessary to invent generators and means of powering them, to develop means of distributing the electrical power, and a first device using the electricity to perform a service people would pay for. Then all sorts of additional apps could be invented and commercialized from electric motors to electric chairs.

I suppose development was first based on the invention of agriculture. Plants and animals were domesticated all over the world, and farmers improved yields by selecting improved varieties and improving farming systems. They learned how to harness animals to pull plows and to use manure to nourish plants. They learned that legumes could restore the yield of fields that had been exhausted by their use growing grains. Early on they developed means to store and distribute water to their fields. On this basis there has been a continuing effort to develop better ways to improve varieties, machinery to increase the farmer's productivity, better fertilizers, etc.

There are, I suppose, many ways to group technologies. Let me suggest that it may be useful to group the infrastructure technologies. Thus roads, aqueducts, waste disposal and sewerage, and ports might be identified. Energy infrastructure, including but not limited to electrical power would also be included in this category. Infrastructure clearly saves a huge amount of human labor, allowing it to be moved to other productive activities. The health benefits of abundant household water and a hygienic environment also contribute hugely to human capital.

Communication technologies might be included within the category of infrastructure, but they might alternatively be included within the category of information technologies, which would include books and printing, computers, scientific instrumentation, magazines, remote sensing, with the enabling inventions such as transistors, integrated circuits and fiber optics.

Then perhaps a category for manufacturing technologies, from the mechanical devices that revolutionized the production of fabrics, to manufacturing processes, the production line, and robotics.

I think there would also be a category for service technologies -- those involved in government, education, finance, wholesale and retail trade, etc.

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