by Jason Crawford · January 1, 2019 · 3 min read
One theme across many areas of industrial progress is how often initial observations or inventions were dropped or remained stagnant for many years before being picked up again and developed into something big and important.
In electricity, key developments were slow and spaced apart. The ability of amber to collect static electricity was known to the ancient Greeks. More than 2,000 years later, in the 1600s, William Gilbert discovered and documented that other materials can do this as well. Then, again, nothing happened for decades. This pattern was seen even in the 1700s and 1800s, when science had gained a lot more momentum. For instance, the battery was invented in 1799, and an electric arc light powered by it was demonstrated in 1809. But there were no more discoveries in the physics of electromagnetism for twenty years, and electricity didn’t become industrially significant until the very late 1800s.
Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, but was ignored for over a decade becaused it was deemed too difficult to produce in sufficient quantity and purity even for further testing, let alone industrial production. It wasn’t picked up again until Howard Florey’s laboratory started investigating it in the early 1940s (and even then progress was slow because they were vastly underfunded, which seems shocking in retrospect).
In the development of the steam engine, more than fifty years elapsed between Newcomen’s original design, which was good for pumping water out of mines but not much else, and Watt’s key improvement of the separate condenser, which opened the path to a bigger range of applications and, more importantly, to further development.
Soon after Watt, a working prototype of a steam-powered carriage, ancestor to the automobile, was built by Robert Trevithick around 1803. However, he could find no investors to fund it, and the automobile wouldn’t be mass-produced for more than a century. Trevithick’s invention was probably ahead of its time, but still, the gap in time is stunning.
A regimen of lime juice as a preventative and cure for scurvy was demonstrated in 1747 (through an early, crude, controlled experiment), but not adopted as policy by the British navy for more than 40 years.
Notably, all these examples happened before about 1950. I don’t think things like this happen today: any development that is obviously promising seems to be instantly seized on and developed. (Of course, not all seeds of big innovations are obvious at first.)
What caused these gaps? I don’t know, but some hypotheses:
Funding seems like a huge one. Before, I don’t know, sometime in 1800s, most scientific research seems to have been done by aristocrats in their spare time. A lot of the progress in the 1800s and especially the 1900s was made by research labs funded by universities, corporations and government. The story of antibiotics, in particular, is one where progress required a massive, and therefore expensive, trial-and-error effort by skilled researchers. And industrial efforts such as creating a horseless carriage usually need the backing of investment bankers (or today, venture capitalists).
Epistemological standards are crucial. The scurvy experiments weren’t done using a standard, accepted experiment design (because none had yet been created) and weren’t published in a known, standard format like a scientific paper. If those things had existed, maybe the results would have been believed and communicated widely much earlier.
Also important are established lines of communication, such as scientific journals (not to mention electronic communications, which propagate ideas around the world instantly).
Even the mentality that we can and should have a scientific explanation for any phenomenon we encounter, is a relatively new one. For most of human history, mystery and magic were all over the place. Rational explanations were the exception, not the rule. It wasn’t until the triumph of the Scientific Revolution that we find it strange and fascinating when we come across something we can’t explain.
Finally, maybe some of the leads that were dropped were not as obvious as they seem in retrospect.
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