Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Things we forgot to invent...

Charles Chu reflects on Gene Wolfe's observations about things we forgot to invent. Before we start, if you haven't read Gene Wolfe's 'Book of the New Sun', you've missed a real treat.

Chu cites wheeled luggage (or rather cites Nassim Taleb's insight), invented around 1970 and not widely available until some time later. Something as mind-bogglingly obvious as sticking wheels on luggage somehow got missed in the 3,000 years between the invention of the wheel and those pioneering wheeled suitcases.

This was Wolfe's realisation - some things like, for example, the hot air balloon got invented a lot later than their simplicity and logic suggest. Wolfe also spotted that somethings got invented more than once (steel smelting - invented in the 5th century BC in China and then again in Britain in the 19th century):
“They had indoor plumbing in Ancient Crete. It was lost with the fall of that civilization, and did not reappear until long after it was needed. A model airplane, carved from wood, has been found in an Egyptian tomb. (Don’t get me started on the Egyptian girl wearing sunglasses.) Electroplating seems to have been invented at least twice. And so on. I decided to put the hot-air balloon in the Dark Ages, and I threw in a few other things too. Thus the story you have just read. Was there ever a time like that? No. Could there have been? Certainly.”
We think of invention as a sort of linear process where x leads to x+ and so forth. The reality is that, not only does x quite often go straight to x++++ but it's a long time before some clever human backtrack to actually invent x+.

In speculating about how we create the right environment for invention, Chu suggests that instead of throwing loads of cash at posh research and development we should do what every bloke with a shed knows:
The answer, then, may not be to pour more funding into R&D. Rather, we should encourage tinkering — we need to repeat many rounds of random, playful and curious trial-and-error to actually discover the amazing ideas that are sitting, invisible, right in front of our faces.


TomJ said...

I note graphene was discovered by people tinkering.

Anonymous said...

There's also 'secondary applications', like the microwave oven and Viagra, both being unintended consequences of other development targets.

We seem beset these days with a market full of 'solutions looking for a problem' rather than the other way round, but maybe that's the bi-product of aimless tinkering.

Curmudgeon said...

You could argue that it was the rise of mass air travel that created a pressing demand for wheeled luggage.

Simon Cooke said...

Suspect the decline in th enumber of servants, porters and folk paid to carry rich folks' luggage is a factor too!

Dan said...

If you wander around the ruins of Pompeii (important thing to note, there; Pompeii is a post-disaster ruin) then you will, if you keep your wits about you, notice a few very interesting things.

Pompeii was set up originally as a huge fortified enclosure. The city wall you see now was how big it was originally, and most of the city lay-out is original. That meant that once the town was going, there was no opportunity to put in sewers (Herculanium just down the road did have sewers, but it was a planned later development of very posh housing).

And yet, if you look, in the corner of most houses in Pompeii, hidden under the render, is a fired-clay pipe leading from the now-collapsed upper storey of the buildings. Roman Pompeii had indoor toilets, and these toilet pipes were flushed somehow (likely rain supplemented by slave plus bucket of water), and emptied into septic tanks part under the buildings, part under the pavements of the streets. The tanks drained out onto the roadways.

That's why the roads of Pompeii have frequent stepping stones across them; the roads were open sewers and must have really stunk.

This is also why the town of Pompeii had an aqueduct leading into it, and why the local water troughs were designed to continually overflow into the streets. Lots of septic tanks contaminate the groundwater, and make wells poisonous, and septic tank systems overflowing into the streets need flushing somehow.

Yes, it stank, but Roman Pompeii had a sewage system far in advance of London before Joseph Bazelgette.