The Roots of Progress

Does invention come from deprivation or plenty?

August 18, 2019 · 3 min read

My post on the history of the bicycle spurred a question on Twitter: “Is invention more common in periods of plenty when idleness inspires curiosity and tinkering, or is human resourcefulness during periods of deprivation a more productive source of creativity?”

I haven’t thoroughly researched this, but my immediate reaction is that invention correlates with wealth (“plenty”), not with deprivation. Some brief thoughts on why:

First, note the simple correlation throughout history. The last couple centuries have been the wealthiest and the most inventive. The tens of thousands of years of deprivation in pre-state societies spurred very little invention during that time. (If someone objects that pre-state tribes had a “comfortable” life and didn’t think of themselves as deprived, well, that’s part of the point! They had no idea what was possible, and so they thought of their deprivation as normal—indeed, it was normal for them.)

Second, look at the causation. Research & development requires surplus. If you’re struggling just to survive, you don’t have the time, energy and resources to invent, even if you see that it would really help you. Deprivation leads to short-term thinking, a scramble for crumbs; R&D requires the long-term view that is possible in times of plenty.

Further, it’s not that case that invention is always (or even often?) a direct response to a strongly felt need. Many inventions (including the bicycle) were initially novelties. Glass was used for decoration before any utilitarian purpose. Many (most? all?) scientific advances were made out of curiosity before they were obviously useful.

More generally, it’s impossible to predict which discoveries or inventions are going to be important, at the time they are made, or to see all of the most important applications that will come. When Newcomen invented the steam engine, I don’t think he had any idea that over a century later a descendant of his machine would power railroads and steamboats. Edison invented the phonograph but didn’t predict the recorded music industry. Rockefeller established the oil industry to produce kerosene, then decades later pivoted to gasoline for automobiles. And when DARPA wrote the first grant to invent the Internet, they had no idea how much bandwidth would one day be consumed by cat pictures. So even if people were motivated purely by utility, or wanted to be, we wouldn’t know which directions to pursue. We make progress only through a wandering, unpredictable process of exploration.

To be sure, there are some inventions that came directly in response to a strong need, and were obviously a big deal from the start. The cotton gin. Bakelite (the first plastic). The transistor. The Haber-Bosch process. It does work that way sometimes. But not always. And note that all of those inventions came from plenty: Whitney was an idle guest of a wealthy plantation owner when he invented the cotton gin, Baekeland invented his plastic after becoming independently wealthy from selling photographic technology to Kodak, researchers at Bell Labs developed the transistor thanks to a large R&D budget owing to AT&T’s telephone monopoly, and Haber-Bosch depended both on Fritz Haber’s university funding and BASF’s enormous investment in industrializing his process.

What about war? Doesn’t that incentivize innovation? WW2 gave us radar and nuclear technology. But wars have been fought for millennia. They didn’t start giving us inventions until we had modern science and R&D labs. War gets people to work a lot harder, both on the front and back home. But it also changes priorities, and it’s not clear to me whether it gets us more innovation or just different innovation. Yes, radar was invented for WW2, but also, the efforts to create the transistor were put on hold for five years. If we hadn’t had the war, would we have gotten the transistor five years earlier? What would that have meant for the economy and the world?

So that’s what surplus gets you on the supply side. But it also helps on the demand side. Until the rise of the middle class, there was little to no market for new inventions. Master craftsmen focused on making luxury products for the elite, rather than affordable staples for the mass market—silk vs. wool. Those with mechanical skill made clockwork toys for the aristocracy for centuries before we got the spinning jenny or the cotton gin.

Bottom line, without having specifically researched this question, all the evidence I’ve seen so far points to “plenty” as necessary for invention, and “deprivation” as neither necessary nor sufficient.

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