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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 21 September 2012

Invention Is the Mother Of Necessity

It's funny how innovation works.  Everyone cribs from everyone else - it's the innovators who add their own spin.

My 11-year-old twin sons just told me what they learned today in school. ''Daddy, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and that was one of the greatest inventions in history.'' I learned that, too, when I was a child. I suspect that the same view is taught in most other American and European schools. What we are told about printing is partly true, or at least defensible. Personally, I would rate it as the best single ''invention'' of this millennium. Just think of its enormous consequences for modern societies. Without printing, millions of people wouldn't have read quickly, with no transmission errors, Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto or other world-changing texts. Without printing, we wouldn't have modern science. Without printing, Europeans might not have spread over the globe since 1492, because consolidation of initial European conquests required the emigration of thousands of would-be conquistadors motivated by written accounts of Pizarro's capture of the Incan emperor Atahualpa.
So I agree with half of what my kids were taught -- the part about the importance of printing. But things get more complicated when you credit this invention specifically to Gutenberg, or even when you credit him with just the printing press itself. Gutenberg did much more than invent the printing press -- and much less than invent printing. A more accurate rendering of his achievements would be something like the following legalistic sentence: ''Gutenberg played a major practical and symbolic role in independently reinventing, in a greatly improved form and within a more receptive society, a printing technique previously developed in Minoan Crete around 1700 B.C., if not long before that.''
Why did Gutenbergian printing take off while Minoan printing didn't? Therein lies a fascinating story that punctures our usual image of the lonely and heroic inventor: Gutenberg, James Watt, Thomas Edison. Through his contribution to the millennium's best invention, Gutenberg gave us the millennium's best window into how inventions actually unfold. Even American and European schoolchildren reared on Gutenberg hagiography soon learn that China had printing long before Gutenberg. Chinese printing is known to go back to around the second century A.D., when Buddhist texts on marble pillars began to be transferred to the new Chinese invention of paper via smeared ink. By the year 868, China was printing books. But most Chinese printers carved or otherwise wrote out a text on a wooden block instead of assembling it letter by letter as Gutenberg did (and as almost all subsequent printers using alphabetic scripts have also done). Hence the credit for what Gutenberg invented is also corrected from ''printing'' to ''printing with movable type'': that is, printing with individual letters that can be composed into texts, printed, disassembled and reused.
Have we now got the story right? No, Gutenberg still doesn't deserve credit even for that. By about 1041, the Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng had devised movable type made of a baked-clay-and-glue amalgam. Among the subsequent inventors who improved on Pi Sheng's idea were Korea's King Htai Tjong (cast-bronze type, around 1403) and the Dutch printer Laurens Janszoon (wooden type with hand-carved letters, around 1430). From all those inventors, it's convenient (and, I think, appropriate) to single out Gutenberg for special credit because of his advances -- the use of a press, a technique for mass-producing durable metal letters, a new metal alloy for the type and an oil-based printing ink. We also find it convenient to focus on Gutenberg as a symbol because he can be considered to have launched book production in the West with his beautiful Bible of 1455.
But a form of printing with movable type was invented far earlier by an unnamed printer of ancient Crete in the Minoan age. The proof of Minoan printing can be found in a single baked-clay disk, six inches in diameter. Found buried deep in the ruins of a 1700 B.C. palace at Phaistos on Crete, the disk is covered on both sides with remarkable spiraling arrays of 241 symbols constituting 45 different ''letters'' (actually, syllabic signs), which were not deciphered until a couple of years ago. A recent decipherment identifies the signs' language as an ancient form of Greek that predates even Homer.
Astonishingly, the symbols of the Phaistos disk weren't scratched into the clay by hand, as was true of most ancient writing on clay, but were instead printed by a set of punches, one for each of the 45 signs. Evidently, some ancient Cretan predecessor of Pi Sheng beat him to the idea by 2,741 years. Why did Minoan printing die out? Why was Renaissance Europe ready to make use of the millennium's best invention while Minoan Crete was not?
Technologically, the Minoans' hand-held punches were clumsy. The early Minoan writing system itself, a syllabary rather than an alphabet, was so ambiguous that it could be read by few people and used for only very particular kinds of texts, perhaps only tax lists and royal propaganda. Chinese printing's usefulness was similarly limited by China's own nonalphabetic writing system. To make Minoan printing efficient would have required technological advances that did not occur until much later, like the creation of paper, an alphabet, improved inks, metals and presses.
I mentioned that Gutenberg is part not only of the millennium's best invention but also of its best insight into how our usual view of inventions often misses the point. Coming up with an invention itself may be the easy part; the real obstacle to progress may instead be a particular society's capacity to utilize the invention. Other famously premature inventions include wheels in pre-Columbian Mexico (relegated to play toys because Mexican Indians had no draft animals) and Cro-Magnon pottery from 25,000 B.C. (What nomadic hunter-gatherer really wants to carry pots?)
The technological breakthroughs leading to great inventions usually come from totally unrelated areas. For instance, if a queen of ancient Crete had launched a Minoan Manhattan Project to achieve mass literacy through improved printing, she would never have thought to emphasize research into cheese, wine and olive presses -- but those presses furnished prototypes for Gutenberg's most original contribution to printing technology. Similarly, American military planners trying to build powerful bombs in the 1930's would have laughed at suggestions that they finance research into anything so arcane as transuranic elements.
We picture inventors as heroes with the genius to recognize and solve a society's problems. In reality, the greatest inventors have been tinkerers who loved tinkering for its own sake and who then had to figure out what, if anything, their devices might be good for. The prime example is Thomas Edison, whose phonograph is widely considered to be his most brilliant invention. When he built his first one, in 1877, it was not in response to a national clamor for hearing Beethoven at home. Having built it, he wasn't sure what to do with it, so he drew up a list of 10 uses, like recording the last words of dying people, announcing the time and teaching spelling. When entrepreneurs used his invention to play music, Edison thought it was a debasement of his idea.
Our widespread misunderstanding of inventors as setting out to solve society's problems causes us to say that necessity is the mother of invention. Actually, invention is the mother of necessity, by creating needs that we never felt before. (Be honest: did you really feel a need for your Walkman CD player long before it existed?) Far from welcoming solutions to our supposed needs, society's entrenched interests commonly resist inventions. In Gutenberg's time, no one was pleading for a new way to churn out book copies: there were hordes of copyists whose desire not to be put out of business led to local bans on printing.
The first internal-combustion engine was built in 1867, but no motor vehicles came along for decades, because the public was content with horses and railroads. Transistors were invented in the United States, but the country's electronics industry ignored them to protect its investment in vacuum-tube products; it was left to Sony in bombed-out postwar Japan to adapt transistors to consumer-electronics products. Manufacturers of typing keyboards continue to prefer our inefficient qwerty layout to a rationally designed one.
All these misunderstandings about invention pervade our science and technology policies. Every year, officials decry some areas of basic research as a waste of tax dollars and urge that we instead concentrate on ''solving problems'': that is, applied research. Of course, much applied research is necessary to translate basic discoveries into workable products -- a prime example being the Manhattan Project, which spent three years and $2 billion to turn Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman's discovery of nuclear fission into an atomic bomb. All too often, however, the world fails to realize that neither the solutions to most difficult problems of technology nor the potential uses of most basic research discoveries have been predictable in advance. Instead, penicillin, X-rays and many other modern wonders were discovered accidentally -- by tinkerers driven by curiosity.
So forget those stories about genius inventors who perceived a need of society, solved it single-handedly and transformed the world. There has never been such a genius; there have only been processions of replaceable creative minds who made serendipitous or incremental contributions. If Gutenberg himself hadn't devised the better alloys and inks used in early printing, some other tinkerer with metals and oils would have done so. For the best invention of the millennium, do give Gutenberg some of the credit -- but not too much.
Jared Diamond is professor of physiology at U.C.L.A. Medical School and author of ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998.

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