‘If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying, ‘It can’t be done.’ – Peter Ustinov
Curiosity will eventually lead to innovation. Fortunately we are an imaginative species who does a lot of wondering. Way back to when man first learned to walk upright and began communicating with each other, by pointing and shouting, we can find the earliest examples. Somebody once thought, ‘I know, we can move that heavy rock, or dead buffalo, by rolling it along on tree trunks because it is easier than dragging it over the ground.’ This, of course, led to the wheel. It must have been around that time that some other clever soul worked out that if he held some meat over that hot firey thing then it tasted better. It seems basic but it was innovation. Somebody somewhere decided to take the risk of burning their food down into ashes, as they knew the burning logs did, just to see if it tasted any better. But I bet there was someone else laughing at him and saying ‘don’t do that, it’s a terrible idea,’ (or whatever is was they would have said back then.) And that’s innovation too. That’s discovery and invention. We have been doing it ever since in one form or another and we have come a long way as a species thanks to people who take risks and ignore the advice of wiser ones. And that, in a nutshell, is what this book is all about. You see, that for all of our innovations and invention over the last six thousand years it is incredible to understand that the one thing that has not developed at all is the human brain.
Believe it or not the pre-historic human brain was perfectly capable of understanding how to use Windows 8.1 and could easily have landed a rocket on the moon if only the information it was given was better evolved at the time. The brain itself was already fine and all it needed was programming. That, of course, is what has happened to it over the many years since. Man has programmed its brain to learn new and better ways of doing things. And curiosity has led it to evolve from pointing and shouting, fire and tree trunks into where we are now. It is curiosity that has led to invention and migration. ‘I wonder what is over that hill over there? There maybe be water, possibly better vegetation. Maybe there are more of those rabbit things we like to eat? Let’s go and have a look.’ This would have taken them from caves and into man-made huts and so on and so on. And all the time, at every step of the way, somebody would also have been saying to them. ‘No, no. That’s a terrible idea. It will never work.’ Or a mother shouted, ‘don’t climb onto the back of that thing Jonny, it’s not safe. You will hurt yourself,’ which was followed by Wham, and ‘I told you so.’ But, as we all know, ‘Jonny must have got right back on that horse.’
More recently, in 1916 somebody said of the radio, ‘the wireless music box is of no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?’ Well, that would have been a fair question back then but imagine a world without the radio. And the same was said of the television when it was dismissed as a novelty. ‘American families will not sit around staring at a plywood box for hours at a time.’ How wrong can you be? King Gillette thought that men would use a razor blade once or twice and then throw it away to buy a new one. His friends, who were all using cut-throat razors handed down from generation to generation, told him he was mad. And nobody took George Devol seriously when he invented the robotic arm and the entire industrial industry simply could not understand how to replace a man, or woman, standing at a bench with a spanner. Well, millions of men and women actually.
The telephone was dismissed as a meaningless toy and the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office actually said, ‘we have perfectly good messenger boys thank you.’ The Chairman of IBM thought there would be a world market for only five computers. Luckily for them (and us) his son, and successor, had other ideas and the jet engine, which has changed the lives of everybody, almost cost Frank Whittle his, but he didn’t give up. The Beatles were told that guitar bands were on their way out and Elvis was dismissed as a truck driver. Firemen were advised to grow whiskers, make sure they were wet and then stuff them in their mouths before running into smoke filled buildings. That was until 1916 when somebody finally agreed that Garrett Morgan’s Safety Hood was a good idea after all. It had only taken him four years to convince the authorities.
And that is what this book is all about. It tells the stories of countless inventive and curious minds and how somebody somewhere thought, ‘now, there must be a better way of doing things than this.’ And then they went off and spent years, in some cases, working out how. And there were some accidents along the way too. A melted chocolate bar was responsible for the microwave oven and a lab accident led to safety glass. JK Rowling and Nabokov were both told nobody would read their books and Marilyn Monroe was advised to improve her typing skills. Some sacrificed their lives for their invention. In fact, in the case of parachutes thousands of them did. Marie Curie famously spent a lifetime experimenting with cures for cancer, and died of cancer as a result and Wan Hu was incinerated when he tried, for the first time, to reach for the stars. The man who invented the modern newspaper press died when he became trapped in one and the list of personal sacrifices, so that we can live in the modern way we do, is a long one. And it has been going on for a very long time. It’s the only way humans would have discovered which berries were poisonous and which they could safely eat. What killed you when it was raw but kept you alive after you cooked it and, of course, who discovered how cows produced milk that was safe to drink. And, for that matter, what did they actually think they were doing when they found that out? (And who was brave enough to taste it?)
To some intriguing questions there can be no answer but for countless others we know exactly who discovered what and how. So sit back and join me on a journey through the history of invention and innovation and discover for yourself just what was going through the minds of these people and who knew a good idea when they saw one. And also discover who told them it would never work. After all, when he first suggested that the earth was round and the sun was in the center of the universe, they laughed at Galileo. (And threatened to kill him)
Bangkok – March 2015