The myth of creative genius or why most revolutionary innovations are pure smoke

5 min read

We live in times where innovation, creative genius and the search for the next technological revolution are everything. We all want to know who is the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Steve Jobs or the next Albert Einstein.

So much so that we project our way of seeing the world about the past and, every so often, texts that talk about the shows great geniuses forgotten that history did not make them justice. But the truth is that most of the time, those great geniuses are justly forgotten. Contrary to what we usually think, inventors often do not exist. At least, if they are not lucky people.

Sellers of smoke (or steam)

Perhaps the best example is the steam engine. That, in fact, should be one of the machines that more times has been invented history. The usual version is that the steam engine was developed and perfected in England between the end of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century. And that, on the other hand and always according to this version, was the engine of the industrial revolution.

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It is not accurate. Although archaeologists certainly could give us examples above, the aeolipile, the first “steam engine” was invented by Hero of Alexandria in the first century after Christ. At first, and for many years, had a recreational purpose (it is a sphere filled with water that, when heated, turns).

But Herón also created automatic doors and hydraulic sources that allow us to state, without risking too much, that the Romans scientists had more than enough capacity to design the steam engine of Thomas Savery no muss.

Later, a century before, according to modern historiography, Mr. Savery invented the first steam engine, Ayanz Jerome, a native of Navarre, also designed an incipient steam. Before we can even find jobs Rivault Florence, Tachy ad-Din or Giovanni Branca in which the steam engine was there, close at hand.

Mills, Mops and Foosball

The same goes for water mills. Traditionally, it was considered that this type of mills had been discovered in the Middle Ages because it is the historical period from which we have material remains. But it is not true. In ancient times the hydraulic mills were well known. In fact, it is known that also began to expand throughout the first century AD. And so to the point of satiety.

The question is clear: no, the mop was not invented or lollipops or foosball. As clearly and strictly speaking, neither the nor the Vikings ‘discovered’ America. A few days ago we discussed here at Engadget who was the “creator” of injectable insulin (Nicholas Paulescu or McLeod, Banting and Best) In a rematch of the famous paradox of “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, have you made noise? Has even fallen?”

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Ideas and moments

A key lesson we can draw from this is that, well, invent something, discover something or develop a genius are useless. For hundreds of years we learned how to use water to produce physical labor, but it was not until the implosion of the slave system that the mills actually became popular.

“There is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea to which its moment has come”, but without “its moment” an idea is nothing

For fifteen hundred years we knew all there was to know to create a steam engine. In fact, wealthy kids had tiny miniature engines. It was not until the specific needs of British mining cachivache Savery introduced the steam engine set out to change the world.

Mops and flooring, lollipops and the reduction of infant mortality, foosball and the incipient improvement of the quality of life of the working classes. Victor Hugo said that “there is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea to which its moment has come”. And he had to be right because “without the time,” the ideas are nothing.

Technology, society and vice versa

The cult of innovation, creative genius and disruptive inventions is one of those characteristics of our era that permeate everything. But, in general, innovations are only of degree. Also in the world of technology where we can almost always find a proof of concept that, twenty years before, will advance the next revolution of the sector.

At bottom, as we look at technological history, we realize that seeing the world as a succession of great geniuses is very attractive, but unrealistic. Undoubtedly, there are people who advance decades knowledge or technology of his day, but if we get a true picture of how it has worked innovation throughout the centuries, the strategy is different: think of history as a very long conversation full of opportunities, misunderstandings and moments of genius. No need to give it more appeal.

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