A dirty (yet open) secret about innovation is that most great breakthroughs don’t happen thanks to a single lone genius.
While history is full of stories of famous inventors, who are often national heroes, in almost every case they were just the first people to improve an existing system to the final stage where it achieved mass appeal.
Think of how scientific discoveries from hundreds of years ago inspired the works of subsequent generations of scientists.
Or how the iPod revolutionised personal music thanks to the combination of progress in the disparate fields of digital music compression, hard drive miniaturisation, cheap ARM microprocessors and various other technological innovations.
As Isaac Newton so famously said in 1676:
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants
In the video above, we find out about 10 famous inventions that were the culmination of efforts by dozens or hundreds of people:
1. Galileo and the telescope
While Galileo is often credited with devising the first telescopes, there was actually a Dutch man called Hans Lippershay who had been making magnification devices using the ever improving qualities of glassmaking at the time.
Allegedly, Galileo heard about these and decided to build his own, even making some improvements in the process. He was also the first person to use these new optics as a scientific instrument, which is where his real value was added.
2. James Watt and the steam engine
When I was in high school, my science teacher thought it was funny to ask “What was the name of the man who invented the steam engine?” Hilarious, because “Watt” was the answer, so the question was also a statement.
Only steam engines predated Watt’s design by almost 60 years. Englishman Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine design in 1698, to remove water from coal mines. Subsequently, Thomas Newcomen improved the design to work at atmospheric pressure, which became the standard design for about 50 years.
Watt’s real innovation was designing the engine with a separate condenser, which made the whole process significantly more efficient.
3. Eli Whitney and the cotton gin
During times of slavery in the USA, Georgia predominantly grew cotton which had shorter fibres. This didn’t work well with the machines at the time which tried to remove seeds from the fibres (roller gins), and required a lot of manual work. So the state of Georgia sponsored an engineering push to come up with a better design.
Whitney improved on the roller gins by replacing the solid rollers with wire teeth.
While this significantly improved the production ability for cotton, it also had the sad side effect of increasing the demand for slaves to man the fields.
4. Elisha Otis and the elevator
Devices capable of lifting people into tall buildings have existed since the ancient Egyptians. And as the industrial revolution and the growth of cities led to taller buildings being constructed, people became tired of having to climb multiple flights of stairs. So elevators were invented, using either steam or electric engines which pulled up elevators with ropes.
However, ropes have a tendency to break. And even being in an elevator only a few storeys high, if the rope broke and you plummeted with the carriage it would result in at least severe injury, if not death.
Otis actually invented the safety break, which would stop the elevator from crashing if it was activated by sudden falling when a rope broke. This removed a major risk of death from buildings taller than a few storeys, and spurred on the building of the first skyscrapers.
5. Thomas Edison and the light bulb
It is perhaps the most famous invention of all time, and its symbol actually epitomises the concept of an idea.
And yet, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. Not the glass bulb, or the glowing filament inside it. He merely improved the previous designs to the point that they became commercially practical, in 1880.
The first electric light device, called an Arc-Lamp, was developed by Humphry Davy about 78 years before that, but didn’t last long and was far too bright. In 1850, Joseph Swan found that carbonised paper was a much better material for a filament and used them to make light bulbs. However, he couldn’t get his design to be efficient or long-lasting.
After further experimentation, both Swan and Edison found subsequently better materials, and eventually their two companies merged to market their new improved design together, though most people only remember Edison.
6. Guglielmo Marconi and the Radio
In the 1890s, both Marconi and Nikola Tesla were fighting to develop the radio. Tesla actually received more of the early patents for the technology. However, the initial discovery of electromagnetic radiation was actually made a decade earlier by German scientist Heinrich Hertz, who was able to both transmit and receive radio waves in his lab.
However, he couldn’t think of any practical applications for his discovery.
It was later Marconi who was able to take all these technologies and turn them into a commercial product.
7. Henry Ford and the car
Ford released the Model T in 1908, and it was the first car to gain mass market appeal and success at a time when many people still travelled by horse.
However, the car as powered by an internal combustion engine was actually created by Karl Benz in 1885, and many other engineers subsequently improved on the design for better efficiency, comfort and performance.
What Ford achieved was improve the production process of the machine. His assembly line improved production efficiency significantly, bringing down the cost of each unit to a price point where people could actually afford it.
8. The Wright Brothers and the airplane
Humankind has been dreaming of flight for eons. From Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches of flying machines to the story of Icarus, people have desired to rid themselves of the shackles of gravity.
And the Wright Brothers were not the only people of their time to try and develop a machine capable of powered flight.
George Cayley was the first person to move from designs involving flapping like birds to a “fixed wing” design. Another engineer called Otto Lilienthal then used a lot of those designs to create actual gliders with fixed wings and testing them, producing a lot of data which the Wright Brothers would subsequently use.
Additionally, the Wright Brothers were able to use another recent invention from the time: the internal combustion engine from automobiles. They were around at just the right time when this became available.
Their true innovation was in their designs which allowed their plane to actually be steered and controlled. And the rest is history.
9. Philo Farnsworth and the TV
An excellent example of an invention that was only possible thanks to numerous other inventions across industries.
Farnsworth was able to take the developments of the cathode ray tube (by Ferdinand Braun) and combine it with a way to scan images using electrons which he apparently began thinking of in high school.
His design also outperformed the other competing TV technology at the time: mechanical TV.
10. Bill Gates and the Graphical User Interface
Early computer systems were primarily command-line driven, meaning you needed to know all of the inputs to type into a keyboard to tell the machine what you wanted it to do.
Many people credit Microsoft Windows with introducing the world to the Graphical User Interface (GUI), where you can use a mouse to click on-screen objects to tell it what to do, making the whole process much more user-friendly.
However, a lot of the progress in GUI development happened much earlier. A pioneer was Douglas Engelbart, who demonstrated an Operating System with a mouse pointer in 1968. This idea was then taken up by Xerox, who released their Alto computers which were the first with a mouse and GUI.
As legends go, Apple’s Steve Jobs saw an Alto while visiting Xerox’s PARC research centre and inspired him to make sure the Apple Macintosh would have a GUI, the first mass-market GUI computers. This then paved the way for the more business-focussed Microsoft Windows Operating System, which took the idea truly mainstream.
Invention is a process that continuously builds on what came before it. While an individual may have a stroke of genius, these moments never happen in a vaccuum.
So while you are thinking of innovations in your company, just remember that you don’t need to always start from scratch.
Often, the best innovations are the ones which take previous ideas and find new ways to add value that the customers love.
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