There is a blog called Farnam Street and named after the street where Berkshire Hathaway has its headquarters in Omaha. The blogger believes in the invincible wisdom of Buffet and Munger while oohing and awing over anything that remotely smacks of “wisdom”, with a capital W, if you like. So I was reading the other day the blog on Google and combinatorial innovation. This blog pushes any number of books as must reads and invites you to buy them through his link to Amazon, thus earning a few pennies for himself. The book of interest is “How Google Works”, by Eric Schmidt and Johnathan Rosenberg, two very high level executives in that company.
According to Schmidt we are entering a new age of combinatorial innovation and when that happens a great availability of different components can be combined or recombined to create new inventions. This is really nothing more than the old theory that an infinite number of monkeys pounding the keys of an infinite number of typewriters will eventually write all the world’s literature and perhaps more than once. Of course we are treated to the relevance of this advanced thinking by considering that it was the standardization of gears and other industrial parts that made the industrial revolution possible. The use of the steam engine (Newcomb’s engine, the first very crude attempt at the use of steam power) was designed to provide an answer to a specific problem. And of course the gasoline engine led to the automobile, the integrated circuit led to computers, and so on. Unfortunately that is not exactly the way it all happened. A number of individuals who pursued science in one way or another sought to understand how steam acted. Even the early Greeks had their own steam device, a cylinder on pivots that could be filled with water and had two opposing spouts through which the vapor could escape when the vessel was heated by a fire. It took quite a bit of engineering and metallurgy to bring the early steam engines to a stage where they could be used for stationary power. And it took a source of energy, namely coal, to power them. Prior to the steam engine the textile mills used water power. The steam engine simply gave the factory the ability to be situated elsewhere. Of course coal power would supersede the burning of charcoal obtained from burning vast amounts of local forests. This charcoal would allow the glass, ceramics, and to a small extent, the iron smelting industry. Coal changed all of that in terms of providing the power and resources needed for those industries. You may wish to read the many books David Burke has written about intellectual discoveries.
As for the standardization of cogs and gears and wheels, that happened as a result of mass production. We might look at Eli Whitney and his development of manufacturing shops where workers would work on some product in batches. The flintlock musket was such a work in progress. The various parts had been made specifically for each musket and it took a trained gunsmith to repair any damages weapon. But if one is going to gain efficiency and use less skilled labor then having someone make only the trigger assembly and another make only the hammer and pan assembly and a third person assemble the parts, then one could produce each musket faster and cheaper. By taking apart the process of manufacture and reassembling it again one could see that standard parts would reduce costs and boost quality. Mass production forces standardization and not the other way round. And it is driven by improvements in productivity, whether by use of capital or by the increase in efficiency of labor. It is the demand and not the supply that provides the growth. And so we can see that when it came to travel, the steam engine was useful but only through propelling heavy vehicles that could carry its weight. The reduction in weight of the steam engine was a prime mover when it came to farm machinery. And lest we forget, it was used in the propulsion of an automobile, the Stanley Steamer. It should also be noted that in the largest cities in America before the gasoline engine became the de-facto standard, one could buy an electric battery powered automobile. Well, I can go on and on but I think you get the point.
As for electronics, most individuals under the age of sixty do not know that diodes and transistors were vacuum tubes used in discrete component arrays. What William Shockley did when he invented the first silicon based transistor at Bell Labs was to reduce the size of the component and its power use. The Japanese were among the first to see the possibilities of miniaturization and bring bring it to the market. This reduction is size made possible the reduction in the amount of power needed to run a computer. It also made possible the combination of multiple transistors and diodes into arrays for logic and package them in very small units. It also reduced the need for the number of resistors and capacitors in any circuit as these discrete components could not be miniaturized. Furthermore, it is the arrangement of logic arrays (logic gates linked together) that make possible the very different computer architectures and the advancement in computer architecture. But it should be said that it took time for the initial invention to gather that critical mass needed for wide implementation. Yes, Marconi invented the radio but until radios could be produced in sufficient numbers and at a low enough cost that broadcasting networks could not emerge. Back in 1971 I wanted my own IBM 360-25 mainframe computer but I would have needed a million or so dollars just to buy one and another million to pay the electric utility bill (the computer used a 330 volt service and needed a very large commercial air condition service to keep it cool). Even the first 8-bit micro computers were not inexpensive by any standard. But I date myself.
What should we take away from the article in the Farnam Street blog? In order to understand invention and innovation one needs to follow thoroughly the histories of past inventions. There exist a great number of legends about inventions and new industries but those are mostly invented by marketers or other pseudo-intellectuals. Of course marketing pukes and MBAs are the least likely to learn much of anything when it comes to past technologies and how they relate to the present and the future. Technical competence is beyond their educations. Marketing is here to sell the future vision and not the current reality. The MBA is here to manage visions and people, not to actually know how anything is designed or made. How many of these people have ever constructed a storage shed of any size? How many of them know how to install a new light fixture or repair a leak in a copper plumbing pipe? How many of them can even change a flat tire on their expensive automobiles? Yeah, I love idiots for they provide those who actually know something of the world with opportunities for income. They couldn’t live without us.