Considerations on the Idea of Invention

Something I’ve been considering for a while is the idea of Invention.  The 19th century readily saw in Europe and America, the rise of the Inventor Hero, the Science Hero.  The person who discovers or Invents and solves problems through his ingenuity.  From the High-Brow works of Verne to the penny-dreadful in which stock scientists create lightning guns, the conception of the Inventor as hero is one that continues to this day.  Yet underpinning it is this idea of invention, of discovery or creation.

A very serious emphasis is often placed within invention on novelty.  Indeed our patent system is derived entirely around the idea that he who submits the patent first is the ‘inventor’ of something and thus has a legal right to control the distribution of that invention or idea, at least for a time.  But while I think on a legal level that makes a small level of sense, on an intellectual one its fraught with obvious problems.

Invention never occurs within a vacuum, and history is rife with idea’s that are simultaneously discovered by people in distant places.  Calculus is an obvious example of an intellectual idea conceived of at several different points, and whose attribution largely depends on which side of the English Channel you were born on.  The Telephone, credited to Alexander Graham Bell, is another.  Multiple patents came in for that device, Bell’s was the first, Bell is heralded as the Inventor of something that certainly not ‘only’ he could create.

I think this idea of invention ties into the paradigm of ‘progress’, this idea of a non-stop forward move towards some sort of perfection.  That society, that culture is improving.  This makes the ‘first’ to invent or develop something a person of value, a genius who alters the world, while those who follow are copiers?  There is a certain logic in that once you know something can be done, it can be easier to develop it, but I think this underscores the importance and intellect of a whole range of people, and in the rush to develop a narrow description of who invented what, we fall afoul of what amounts to politics.

As a first example, we can take the Printed Press.  For historical reasons, it’s development by Gutenberg is held as a near universal achievement.  And it is undeniable that the production of the printing press by Gutenberg contributed to a series of massive social changes within European society that impacted the world.  The capacity to produce books more cheaply brought the potential for reading and literacy into countless homes, and coupled with the protestant thought that one should be able to read the bible to connect with God, gave powerful ammunition to the spread of literacy and education.  However, there are now a half-dozen Asterisk’ besides that ‘Invention’ that through it’s particular into question.  China developed many of the qualities we take as consequence of the Gutenberg revolution much earlier.  They certainly had printing presses at the start of the 13th century, though not movable type.  China already had an expansive literate class that held education as central to morality and as an important thing to impart to the masses, and that it had possessed for centuries.  We see examples of movable type within China and definitely within China’s sphere of influence.  Korea’s own developed language system was propagated along with movable type.

Yet the social developments of Europe are different from those of China and Korea, and I think the reason now for those footnotes, or that they remain footnotes or that certain historians struggle to preserve the uniqueness globally of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg has more to do with our conception of progress and invention than anything else.  If China, or Korea, or what have you, developed the Printing press first, than does this bring into question the impact the Printing press had on European society and the world?  I think the resistance to this is similar to the way in which definitions of language are altered to prevent them being applied to animals.  Because that requires us to alter other fundamental understandings of our world.  The Printing Press was an important development in the History of Europe and the World.  But highlighting it as an Invention ignores it’s inter-relation with the other social and cultural elements already at play.  It ignores the important part of the story really.  It isn’t important that Gutenberg invented a printing press.  It’s important that this technique was developed somewhere in Europe and that the historical conditions were right for its propagation throughout Europe.

A last example, and one that actually sparked this thought process, is that of the Cherokee writing system.  In the late 1810’s and early 1820’s, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah, who was illiterate, developed a phoneme based writing system for the Cherokee language.  He had obviously seen examples of writing and had examples of books and how they worked, yet he himself couldn’t read what was in them.  He could, however, understand the process, and he utilized the examples he had to basically ‘retro-engineer’ a writing system.  He gave us an example of something we haven’t really observed that often in history, some-body inventing Writing.  Many of his ‘characters’ look like Latin or Cyrillic Characters, but they have very different qualities and little relation to those of say the English Alphabet.

I find this an absolutely amazing historical example of ingenuity.  Utilizing what he knew existed to develop something new and useful for himself.  This seems like an example of ‘Invention’ with an obvious ‘Inventor Hero’, and yet to the common way of understanding, Sequoyah wasn’t ‘inventing’ but copying.  I think the way we talk about invention, innovation and such needs a radical shift in terms of historical perspective.  It needs to ask the questions historians ask, like how did this affect things, what were the circumstances that allowed it to occur in the first place, how did it interact with other developments, and so forth.  A broadening of our conception of the value of intellectual pursuits.  Is it important that the Americans and Soviets were both just ‘copying’ German rocket designs in the early periods of the space program?  Or is what is important how those German innovations, designs, and indeed, scientists, contributed to the space race and what that meant in terms of global history.


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