June 6, 2008
Don’t believe the dramatic story that “that the telephone was born when Alexander Graham Bell spilled battery acid on himself and called out to Thomas Watson for help,” says Susan Cheever, Watson’s great-granddaughter. Writing to The New Yorker, she says:
March 10, 1876, the day Watson heard Bell through the wire, was a day completely without drama. There is no mention of the battery-acid accident in Bell’s log of the day. “The first recorded message was commonplace,” Watson complained in letters. “There was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.” It wasn’t until fifty years later, in 1926, when Watson sat down to write his lovely memoir, “Exploring Life,” that the battery-acid story was born. …
I come from a family of inspired storytellers, and Watson, who was my great-grandfather, was one of the best.
June 6, 2008
Good reading: Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on “In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare?”
In order to get one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, in other words, we thought we needed the solitary genius. But if Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into the Grand River and drowned that day back in Brantford, the world would still have had the telephone, the only difference being that the telephone company would have been nicknamed Ma Gray, not Ma Bell.
This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common.
January 26, 2008
Here’s an intriguing mix of conceptual and experimental innovation: evolutionary design.
The concept is to use a computerized trial-and-error method that mimicks the evolutionary process and eventually produces successful innovations. Because computers are so much faster than in the past, this method has now been used for designing cars, aircraft, USB memory sticks, yachts, optical fibers, ear implants, a cancer-detecting device, and a Wi-Fi antenna.
An article in The Economist (online in October, in print in December 2007) describes the process:
Evolutionary design uses a computer program called an evolutionary algorithm, which takes the initial parameters of the design (things such as lengths, areas, volumes, currents and voltages) and treats each like one gene in an organism. Collectively, these genes comprise the product’s genome. By randomly mutating these genes and then breeding them with other, similarly mutated genomes, new offspring designs are created. These are subjected to simulated use by a second program. If a particular offspring is shown not to be up to the task, it is discarded. If it is promising, it is selectively bred with other fit offspring to see if the results, when subject to further mutation, can do even better.
July 17, 2007
Former Microsoft innovator Scott Berkun, author of “The Myths of Innovation,” has some noteworthy observations about young geniuses and older experimenters in a recent interview in the “How to Change the World” blog from former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki.
His observations are interesting, but would be more useful if they incorporated insights that David Galenson brings to the discussion.
On experimentation: Berkun sees experimentation as a supplement to the conceptual approach, which often be, of course. He doesn’t describe it as an approach that can stand on its own: “The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time.”
On age: Berkun believes that innovation declines with age, which tends to be true for conceptual innovators but not for experimental innovators. His explanation is that older people tend to shy away from the risks that innovation entails.
“Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write his ninth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.”
Readers’ comments on the interview are also interesting. They touch on the works of James Burke and Clayton Christensen on innovation and Frank Lloyd Wright as aging innovator.