Inventors anonymous

April 13th, 2009

Bronze buckles from an archaeological site in SwedenAll sorts of technological brilliance has gone unrewarded through human history. Who invented bread? The canoe? Lipstick and eyeliner? The saddle? Hair gel? Catgut for musical instruments? Shoe polish? Cured leather? The belt buckle? Vehicle suspension, which makes road journeys almost comfortable? Gears? Bullets? The list is nearly endless, and patent-free.

It’s easy to fantasise about how many of these technological advances came about, to invent clever or practical originary stories. Prehistoric man falls into pond, thrashes about, grabs round log but finds it impossible to sit on, thinks (or grunt-thinks) between swallows of pond water: “Dammit, if this thing only had a seat and an outboard motor…”

Or: prehistoric woman wakes up after all-night sacred fermented beehive eating ritual, sees swollen face reflected in water next morning after lighting sooty breakfast fire, and is so appalled that she rubs her eyes. Voilà, kajal. (This could even have been a man.)

If happenstance or immediate practical necessity is behind much invention, it’s no wonder that many of the most critical inventions are orphans to our eyes. Who knows, while adding a tweak to a tool that makes it more convenient to use, that one is thus enriching the technological inheritance of all humankind?

It’s quite possible that most of us have invented some little shortcut or efficiency tactic that might prove to have significant economic value to someone else. It may be a more efficient route between home and office, or a better kitchen storage system, a particular technique of cooking some stubborn comestible, some software quickly written up for oneself to serve a specific need (hey, lots of IT-enabled people do this for fun), some novel way of using a word or words that feeds new movement in the “coolness” industry… Again, the list is practically endless.

There’s just no way to foresee what will survive. That, and the near-impossibility of figuring out, in our highly viral world, where an idea actually started (if it even had a single source), is why, despite the explosive growth in published words (paper, TV, radio, Net, podcast, iReport…) and the tendency to associate oneself strongly with, and publicise, one’s own successful work — professional or recreational — I suspect the anonymous inventor is far from a creature of the past. And good thing, too.

(The photo above is from here.)

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