A great series on the technological innovations that have molded modern life, How We Got to Now, recently concluded on PBS. (If you missed the six-part series the first time around, it’s bound to be repeated.) Now the series’ host, Steven Johnson, has written a companion book with the same title. In both the series and the book Johnson focuses on innovations in six areas: clean, cold, light, time, sound and glass.
It’s the combinations of innovations—the intersections—that are particularly fascinating to me. I’ve written often that the path to innovation is rarely straight and that curves in the road, or even roadblocks for that matter, are often the gateways to ideas that can turn into everything from tweaks to game changers. And while it’s interesting to look backwards and see where the dots were connected to get us to, say, the telescope and the microscope, it’s even more interesting to realize that the days of discovery and bringing together innovations are far from behind us. In fact, I’d say that the pace of technological innovation mashups is only accelerating.
Not all of the innovations were the work of lone geniuses; some were developed by teams working for governments, businesses and academia. Some innovations made their inventors or developers huge sums of money, while the originators of some innovations remain anonymous. But one of the key underlying unifying factors, though, is that someone who was not satisfied with the status quo took the time to ponder the ramifications of a new direction with either a problem that needed a solution or a way something could be done better. That person, whether part of a team or on his or her own, did not set limits on where a potential solution could be found.
Take Away: Combining innovations can lead to even greater discoveries.