Ideas Evolve over Time by Blending with Other Ideas
One of the fascinating aspects of invention is tracking the continuity of ideas across an arc of time. Through education, exposure, and experimentation, people’s creative thoughts can stretch both temporally and across various disciplines of knowledge.
When people develop a new idea, they often share it with others, who may then use this idea to expand their own understanding of concepts, invent even fresher ideas, and spread them. Ideas thus evolve over time.
Building on Antecedent Inventions
Considering the collaborative nature of idea formation, every new idea is arguably a conceptual sum of its predecessors. The power of blending ideas to form new ones is shown in that most seminal inventions are based on antecedents—inventions that came before them. For instance,
- James Watt’s “invention” of the steam engine (or, more precisely, his invention of the separate-condenser steam engine) was in fact an attempt to modify Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine. Newcomen’s work was itself based on Thomas Savery’s invention of a steam-powered pump to extract water from mine-shifts. Later, James Watt adapted his separate-condenser to produce continuous rotary motion and expanded its use far beyond pumping water. Continuous rotary motion sparked the transition from hand-production methods to machine-power and became the driving force of the Industrial Revolution.
- The Wright brothers’ first heavier-than-air powered flight was the culmination of their experience with bicycles. This first flight demonstrated their ability to improve prior inventions by applying previously-reached solutions to controlled flight issues. [See my previous article on how the Wright brothers argued and developed their ideas.] Within fifty years of the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane, humankind’s concept of distance had changed dramatically: aircrafts could fly across continents in hours—sometimes faster than sound. Just a short time later, aircrafts were traveling into space.
- British Mathematician Andrew Wiles’ much-celebrated proof of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem was based on the work of some of the greatest mathematical minds who, over three centuries, had also puzzled over Fermat’s Last Theorem. Contemporaries Gerhard Frey, Jean-Pierre Serre, and Ken Ribet also influenced Wiles’ work. Until Wiles’ success in the mid-nineties, the theorem remained inaccessible to proof for 358 years. In the 1840s, German mathematician Richard Dedekind attempted to solve the theorem and in so doing, laid the foundations of algebraic number theory.
Idea for Impact: Creativity is accessible through the often-subconscious process of blending what you already know to form new ideas.
Case Study: Gutenberg’s Invention of Mechanized Printing
In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanized movable-type printing. His invention revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge throughout the Western World and played a pivotal role in the development of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.
The earliest forms of printing evolved from letter and coin punches, which were in vogue even in the Neolithic era. Woodblock printing was fashionable in East Asia since the second century. At least two centuries prior to Gutenberg’s invention, manual block printing with movable type had existed. However, this technique was hardly known in Europe, where all manuscripts were laboriously copied out by hand or stamped out with woodblocks before Gutenberg’s invention.
Gutenberg blended the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a mechanized wine press to invent mechanized printing. For each character to be printed, Gutenberg used his skills as a goldsmith to cast individual pieces of metal type. These pieces could be quickly assembled into blocks depending on the composition of characters on a page.
Gutenberg’s mechanized press was an adaptation of the wine press, a historical contraption used to crush grapes and extract their juice for winemaking. Gutenberg’s press consisted of a fixed lower bed and movable upper platen containing composed type blocks. The platen was inked, covered with a sheet of paper, and pressed by a small bar on a worm screw. Pressing the upper and lower surfaces together formed a vise and left a sharp impression of inked characters on the paper.
The hand-operated Gutenberg press was further mechanized in the 19th century. Engineers introduced James Watt’s invention of the double-acting rotary steam engine to create steam-powered rotary presses, altogether creating industrialized bulk printing.