Alex Wright

Teaching Innovation

October 20, 2008

I spent this past weekend in Kansas City, taking part in a Foreign Policy Research Institute seminar on teaching the history of innovation. The organizers pulled together an impressive roster of speakers, including Professors Peter Watson, Dennis Shasha, David Hounshell and Alex Roland. I confess I felt pretty way out of my depth taking the podium alongside such an august group of academics, but the whole thing turned out to be quite energizing. I've cobbled together a few raw notes here:

Walter MacDougal
Conference co-chair MacDougal opened with a few general remarks on teaching innovation. The subject remains poorly understood, because we tend to take innovation for granted - but it’s rarely studied. Nor, for that matter, is our nation's cultural faith in the merits of "progress." But recent events are calling into question the assumption that America is destined to remain the world’s fountain of innovation, and we are beginning to discover that one of the inevitable byproducts of innovation is a certain kind of anxiety. He closes by asking whether our national notions of power and wealth become passé? Will our relationship to time, space and the planet evolve? To answer these questions, he suggests, we need to broaden our inquiry beyond conventional historical narratives.

Peter Watson
The eminent Oxford historian and author of Ideas: A History of Thought From Fire to Freud opened his talk with the old saw that there’s no such thing as history, just historical interpretration. Once you get away from the familiar narrative of kings and queens and power plays, the possibilities become if not endless, at least multifarious. He talked about the "trichosis" syndrome so prevalent among historians - i.e, the tendency to divide intellectual history into contrived sets of threes (Francis Bacon's construct of printing, gunpower and magnets; Thomas Hobson's Physics, Psychology, Politics; Carlisle's Gunpowder, Printing and Protestantism; James Fraser's Magic, Religion, and Science, and so on). Each is a theoretical basis for meta-history, a mix of technologies, what the French call a "mentalite."

Watson argued that we need to consider the “little” ideas: the invention of zero, printing, money, agriculture, writing, law, musical notation, the laptop – but we also have to encompass the all-embracing ideas, "the big words that make us afraid": morals, laws, philosophy, etc. Giving in to the trichosis impulse himself, Watson suggested three ways of organizing intellectual history: 1) when mankind “turned in” to seek the truth inside himself, periods of great religious and artistic innovation – the Axial Age, when modern spirituality began. Ionian positivism – the notion that the world may be known by studying its effects; 2) Around the three great “accelerations” in terms of innovation: Mesopotamia – invention of writing, schools, legal codes (27 firsts); then Europe in 11-13th century, the invention of spectacles, music, plus and minus signs, alphabetization; 3) 1750-1950: the period of industrial innovation. Watson offers one sweeping organizational theme: that all of these periods of change were associated with the evolution of cities. Another model for organizing history is to explore in terms of three core ideas: 1) The idea of soul 2) the idea of Europe or the West 3) the idea of the experiment - the last being terribly important to the evolution of the modern mind. The experiment is a democratic form of authority, independent of the individual’s authority – this secular science, not democracy, is what our modern prosperity is based on. It helped trounce primitive ideas of the soul – kept in hair, parts of the body, etc, certain people having souls. Thus the idea of the immortal soul – originated from the Greeks, who believed in reincarnation. Socrates and Plato both believed in the divine origin of the soul, believed it was more precious than the body. This belief enabled religious authorities to exercise remarkable authority, keeping the ignorant laity enthralled to educated clerisy. The abuses of “soul technology” - like selling indulgences - led to the Reformation.

He went on to point out that the course of intellectual history dominated by non-Europeans until 15th century, discussing the contributions of China and the Islamic world. The seeds of European innovation were sown in 12th and 13th century Europe, when Latin emerged as a unifying force in thought and education moved from the monasteries to cathedrals, from one-one teaching to classes of up to 300 students; universities snowballed, and there was a battle to wrest control away from the institutions. Roger Bacon forecast autos, submarines, and a yet-to-be-realized device for walking on water. The realm of reason and science must be outside the sphere of theology. This transition is reflected in the change of the crucifix: in pre-millennium churches, Christ looked triumphant, like he was ready to rise from the dead; after 1000AD, he looks dead and in pain – because after the millennium no one any longer expected Christ to return and save them. A new emphasis on individual salvation emerged, reflected in the rise of confession, personalized literature, the use of names and nicknames, rise of biography. Identifiable artists appear for the first time. There was an explosion of love literature, and a host of new inventions: spectacles, the clock, the compass, the astrolabe, libraries, private studies in houses, and clocks are adjusted for seasons.

Throughout history, there have been numerous cases where multiple people had the same idea at roughly the same time: Wallace and Darwin; Macht(?) and Einstein; in the 1840s at least 12 people were working on conservation of energy; Freud and Jung; Kandinsky et al. There is no magic place where ideas come from. 100 years ago was a more interesting and innovative time: particle physics, quantum theory, Picasso and Matisse, film was new, telephone was new, flight was 4 years old, the car, psychoanalysis, gene was rediscovered, Zionism was in its infancy, the skyscraper was born, plastic conceived, aspirin just appeared. We think we are living in a brave new world. But compared to a century ago, we are not. But one thing has happened: genetic research has proved that we are all one people. Think what a difference that would have made in the 19th/20th century wars. Internet and globalization: we are living in an age of consolidation, not an age of novelty.

But the big innovations have yet to come. We are obsessed by speed and smallness, but if the quantum computer comes true, we will eventually be able to be in two places at once. Most of us don’t understand that, but it’s sheer unexpectedness has echoes of Schoenberg and Planck, etc. We are entering a world where language breaks down and only mathematics can tell the story.

Lawrence Husick
Conference organizer Lawrence Husick, a patent attorney and senior fellow at FPRI, gave a talk about the history of innovation, organizing his presentation around what he defined as the 25 most important innovations in history (an admittedly subjective exercise). Husick's formula for calculating the impact of a particular innovation looked something like this: Rank=impact (good or bad) on human life x total number of lives affected (regardless of whether they know about it). He defined innovation as the process of making changes, especially by introducing valuable new methods, ideas or products (i.e., not just tools and toys).

His list of innovations:

  • 25 relativity and quantum mechanics
  • 24 electromagnetism
  • 23 evolution and natural selection
  • 22 steam power
  • 21 water power
  • 20 science (natural philosophy)
  • 19 moveable type
  • 18 fossil fuels
  • 17 specialization of labor
  • 16 paper
  • 15 wheel and axle
  • 14 formal law codes
  • 13 money
  • 12 God(s)/religions
  • 11 alphabetic writing
  • 10 food preservation
  • 9 metallurgy
  • 8 ceramics
  • 7 farming
  • 6 clothing
  • 5 symbolic communication
  • 4 lever simple machine
  • 3 inclined plane simple machine
  • 2 taming of fire
  • 1 spoken language (semantic, syntactic)
  • 0 Intentional pedagogy (i.e., teaching)

He then moved on to a discussion of pedagogy and innovation, stressing the importance of rule-breaking (e.g. video game cheats), the importance of failure and learning how to create a teaching environment where failure is safe (e.g., gymnasts mats). Some methods for teaching innovation: problem-solving, biographical narratives, and hands-on Rube Goldberg device contests.

Panel Discussion
Picking up on some of Husick's themes, a lively evening panel discussion with Husick, Joy Hakim, Dennis Shasha and Paul Dickler ranged over the broader topic of teaching and innovation, concluding with a couple of hands-on teaching exercises that involved groups of audience members breaking out to solve a couple of maddening math puzzles and modeling a few different classroom exercises for getting students engaged with the topic of innovation.

Alex Roland
Duke professor and former NASA historian Rowland talked about the dark side of innovation: military technology. He points out that the history of military technology has been pockmarked with good intentions: people who thought they were doing good by creating more powerful weapons, especially in the 18th/19th century when inventors thought that if they would make the ultimate weapon it would mean the end of war. That misguided optimism tragically fueled the cataclysms of the world wars, but ultimately may have realized its aim: by creating nuclear weapons so powerful that they may actually have ended the age of great power wars. Technology was the engine that got us into the mess of world wars, but - while it may be too early to say - it's possible that technology may just have gotten us out of them, at least for the time being.

He talked about the problem of technological determinism: the notion that technology at certain points in history just takes over, when we seemingly lose control over the systems we create? We are at a point now where we might well wonder whether anyone understands what is in these complex systems? Does any single human mind understand how the space system works? Does any single mind really understand how our computers work when we’re now up to several levels of complexity. Often with technology we get second-order consequences and end up with outcomes that we didn’t expect.

David Hounshell
A professor of technology and social change at Carnegie Mellon, Hounshell closed the conference with a discussion of innovation and the American economy. He focused on the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist who played a key role in framing the history of innovation (recommended reading: Prophet of Innovation by Thomas McGraw). Schumpeter's great contribution was the notion of "creative destruction," the idea that capitalism thrives on both the creative and destructive power of innovation. Schumpeter emphasized two now-faous concepts: Entrepreneur and Innovation.

What exactly does innovation mean? Schumpeter defined it as “some form of new combination” in one of 5 cases: 1) a new good or new quality of a new good; 2) a new method of production; 3) the opening of a new market; 4) conquest of a new source of supply of raw materials; 5) the carrying out of a new organization of any industry

The original German word for entrepreneur was “Unternehmer”: the “undertaker." There's an important and little understood distinction between inventors and entrepreneurs. Mere invention is insufficient for economic growth. The undertaker takes an invention and pushes it into a resistant organization, society or what have you. That change is what brings about economic growth. Entrepreneurship is not a profession. Entrepreneurs do not form a special class. They tend to swim against the stream, possessed of a certain drive, a will to conquer, an impulse to fight, a desire to succeed, the will required to push something into the marketplace.

Capitalism is inherently unstable, but there is a form of “trustified” capitalism that can work, but there are different forms of innovation in each. Trustified capitalism addresses the emergent of dominant businesses like US Steel, GM, DuPont, etc… they solved the problem of innovation yet they were monopolies. Are we beginning to witness the end of corporate R&D and the rise of a more market-oriented view of innovation? That seems to be the public perception, but corporate R&D spending is still booming. Corporations spend more than government on R&D. 75% of all trained scientists and engineers work in industry, yet there's a popular perception that we’re moving toward more of a market-based innovation model, similar to the pre-industrial era.

File under: Glut

« Now in paperback | Grant Park »


Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

Mastering Information Through the Ages

New Paperback Edition

“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times     

Buy from