The Technium

Simultaneous Invention

[Translations: Japanese]

In a New Yorker article about Nathan Myhrvold’s idea factory, Malcolm Gladwell surfaces the scholarly work of researchers into the history of science who contend that simulatenous discover of inventions is the norm. In any period, ideas are discovered at the same time. Even big ideas. This is true for the past, present, and in different culturess. As Gladwell writes: 

They found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.  “There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue: 

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington. 

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Nathan Myhrvold runs Intellectual Ventures, which is essentially a patent machine. The chief employees are patent lawyers and clerks who win about 500 patents per year. These patents are generated by a loose group of innovative thinkers whose job it is to sit around and come up with novel ideas. Nathan hires these smart folks to brainstorm with specialty experts. So he may land his group at a small meeting of surgeons, and watch what happens when physicists and doctors blue-sky new medical instruments. They don’t do the hard work of trying to make their inventions work; instead they describe them sufficiently to get a patent for them — if there isn’t already one filed.

The point is that there often already is a patent. It’s not hard to come up with new big ideas. In fact it is so easy, that most big good ideas come to more than one person at once. That is why we have a patent office — to assign priority since good ideas are ‘in the air.”

Gladwell’s article is terrific, as usual, but there is a very odd absence. It lacks any reference to others doing exactly the same thing as Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. For instance it does not mention Jay Walker, of Priceline fame. Walker runs Walker Digital Labs, which does exactly what IV does. At the labs a bunch of interesting folks sit around with patent lawyers coming up with one idea after the next, which they patent at a furious rate. And then licence to others to develop. Thats’ the entire business model of the outfit, just like IV.

But there is not even a hint in the piece that other outfits are mass-producing patented ideas as their chief product.  And the reason this absence is so odd is that if Myhrvold’s idea is so great, you would expect, as Gladwell correctly concludes, that other folks would simultaneously have the same great idea. According to the logic of the article there would HAVE to be others. And there are!

Recognition of other people who, like Myhrvold, got the idea to manufacture patents without physical research would have been a great way to conclude this wonderful introduction to simultaneous invention. It’s a rare miss for Gladwell.


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