Friday, January 28, 2005

The Age of Invention is Over

Well, no not really, but you might think so if you listened to Andy Rooney's 60 Minutes report.

Rooney is often times crazy, but no more so than this report.

The age of invention is over, I'm afraid.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 and that changed everyone's life. People could exchange information instantly, even when they were a long way from each other.
Well except if he had watched the Telephone episode of Modern Marvels over on the Hitler Channel (AKA the History Channel) he would have learnt something quite different.

Quick Aside: Modern Marvels might be the best TV show on today. Well, not every episode so you will want to set your Tivo and just view the interesting topics. I glean pearls of knowledge from every episode I watch. If you are like me and hated history in school because it was really just about the history of politics and wars, check out this show. It will give you the history of things that you use everyday and have more of an impact on your life then politics or war do.

OK, back to my point, if you look back at Bell and the telephone it is very different than Rooney is talking about.

First, the telegraph already allowed people to exchange information instantly when they were a long way from each other. The investor that supported Bell actually told him not to work on inventing the telephone. He wanted him to find a way to fit more telegraph transmissions on one wire.

Second, even after Bell created the telephone its value of adding voice to a telegraph was not clear. When it was displayed at an inventions fair, it was not even the highlight of the fair and was dismissed as a parlor trick. Why would you need to speak over a phone when telegraphs could convey the same information in a cheaper fashion?

Not seeing the value of the telephone, Bell's investor wanted to sell the patent to Western Union (the largest telegraph company in the country). But, in what could quiet possibly be the worst business decision of all time, Western Union could not see the value in the telephone and wouldn't buy it.
The cell phone is not an invention. It's an improvement on Bell's invention, and nothing in my lifetime has changed the way we live in an unimportant way more than the cell phone has.
Except that you could think of Bell's invention as an improvement on the telegraph. Both used wires for communication, the only thing Bell did was allow for voice. And Bell's invention really didn't handle voice that well. A few years after Western Union tried to get into the phone business they hired Edison to work on it. Edison made some improvements that greatly improved the quality of the sound. So it was really Bell's "invention" plus Edison's "improvement" that made the telephone something worth using.

The cell phone is actually a more profound improvement over the telephone than the telephone was over the telegraph. The cell phone allows you to communicate no matter where you are located. A phone is no longer tied to a location but rather to a person. People can now communicate with each other no matter where they are located. The telephone on the other hand just added voice to a telegraph.
The U.S. Patent Office granted 200,000 patents last year, and most of those were not inventions. They were either gadgets or modifications of something that was invented 50 or 100 years ago.
Well true, but equally true is that all "inventions" are really just modifications or improvements of other "inventions". For example I have heard people lament that Intel is not that innovative because they created the microprocessor 4 decades ago and then have just improved upon this one "invention". But to me Intel is the very definition of inventiveness as they invent new ways to increase the speed of microprocessors year after year. Moore's law is one of the most influential and amazing developments in all of human history.

In software, while the 1.0 might be the invention it is not usually until the 3.0 version that the software is really good. So what is more important, the invention or the continual improvement? Or is there really much of a different between the two?

It is always easy in hindsight to look at continual improvement and pick out a few discreet points and call them "inventions". Just like it is easy to look at a rainbow and find distinct colors even though it is just a beam of constantly changing colors from Red to Violet.
If Alexander Graham Bell hadn't invented the telephone, we could spend more time thinking about something important, and less time talking to each other about nothing.
Yes, I am sure that if weren't for phones people would be spending their time reading Shakespeare and contemplating string theory. Anthropologists had thought that language in humans had developed as a way to spread technical knowledge: how to make knives and cooking tools. But now they believe that language development in humans as a way to cement social relations aka gossip. Somehow I see little reason to blame the phone for this.

I bet the Andy Rooney of the late 1800s was writing about how the telephone was not an invention but just an improvement of the telegraph (and one that didn't add any value). And I can't wait to hear the Andy Rooney of 2050 talk about how the cellphone was the last invention and that nothing had been invented in the last 50 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.