Ever wondered how things were created? Not in terms of how the world came to be – too many people already have theories for that – but how the greatest inventions came about. How on earth did a man wake up and suddenly have an idea that somehow birthed technological beings and massive infrastructures, out of nothing? Who would have thought about inventing computers, musical instruments, and the internet – out of mere imagination? Creativity may give you room to think up powerful possibilities, but the world itself poses as a dump of limitations. I mean, I can think up a teleporting machine, but it is another completely different thing to be able to create it. The reason for this is that innovation and invention never come up merely from the internal process of creative thinking or brainstorming. Neither are they completely born out of necessity; at least not on their own. The cave men might have required fire to keep them warm, but if there weren’t stones available – or anything else – to aid the process of creating fire, it would never have happened.
I watched a Ted Talk by American science author and media theorist, Steven Johnson, on ‘the playful wonderland behind great inventions’. While his theory around the creation of great inventions was that these inventions were borne out of mere play and music as oppose, again necessity; I picked up a completely different understanding from it. In his talk, he explained how the cave men started off the process of invention. They created fire from the availability of stones and used wood to keep the fire burning. They also were able to make little garments from animal skins to stay warm, and when they had finished getting basic items, they felt the next thing to conceptualise and create, was music. Hang on to the sequence for a second. These things were borne out of their necessities or just for the fun of it. But more importantly, the groundwork that was already available or that have already been created. It is how the car can be made now, because of the first man who invented the wheel, and so on. However, on listening to same Ted Talk by Steven Johnson, I found out that even greater achievements of today, can be traced back to the beginning itself.
“A young bear died in the rolling hills on the North West border of modern day Slovenia; a thousand years later, a mammoth died in southern Germany. A few centuries after that, the griffin vulture also died in the same vicinity. We know nothing about how these animals met their deaths, but these different creatures, dispersed across both time and space did share one remarkable fate. After their deaths, a bone from each of their skeletons was crafted by human hands into a flute”
You may wonder the relevance of this on anything at all, but you would be amazed to know that this one object with ‘useless vibrations and air molecules’ that was invented just for fun, birthed the creation of much greater things like the piano, the typewriter, the computer, and so many others. How?
“The idea behind the flutes, was just pushing air through tubes to make a sound. It was eventually modified to create the first organ more than 2000 years ago. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of triggering sounds by pressing small buttons called levers, with our fingers, thus inventing the first musical keyboard. Keyboards evolved from organs, to clavichords, harpsichords, to the piano; until the middle of the 19th century when a bunch of inventors finally hit on the idea of using a keyboard to trigger, not sounds, but letters. In fact, the very first typewriter was originally called ‘The Writing Harpsichord’.”
“Flutes and music led to even more powerful breakthroughs. About a thousand years ago, at the heights of renaissance, three brothers in Baghdad designed a device that was an automated organ, they called it ‘the instrument that played itself’. The instrument was basically a giant music box. The organ could be trained to play various songs by using instructions encoded by pins on a rotating cylinder. If you wanted the machine to play a different song, you just swapped the cylinder in with a different code on it. The instrument was the first of its kind – it was programmable. Conceptually, this was a massive leap forward. The whole idea of hardware and software becomes thinkable for the first time with this invention…”
Just so I don’t run you through his entire talk, the idea is that a lot of the great inventions we see today, came up from the flute that was invented centuries ago. Of course, it was probably not as plain or basic as this. But we can tell that even though invention is the creation of something that has never existed as a result of unique insight or some creative dust; evolution always precedes innovation. Every invention today can be traced back to the creation of numbers and letters in the first place. In order words, for you to create, be innovative, or invent, you needn’t start from scratch, because the ground work has already been done for you. While this may sometimes seem apparent, like nobody was really going to recreate the concept of the wheel before making a car, or recreate letters before writing a book; not many people understand that the innovation process is partly your mind, and majorly the things around you.
Maybe if things still progressed and innovations continue to evolve from themselves, the things that we see as impossible – like teleporting machines and vessels that can visit the sun – can be invented. These days, technological advancement has gone as far as making clones of humanity and robotic machines. If you can think it, chances are that somebody is already working on it. But if you think it, and want to create it, there’s no point going back to analysing basics that top dogs like Einstein and Nikola Tesla have already done for you. As long as you can understand that the process of innovation and invention is a product of not just your mind but the simple things around you, you would wake up staring at your mirror and conceptualize a convex teleporting portal of some sort. Just because evolution is the king of innovation and invention.