The daily avalanche of technological innovations that make our lives easier and at the same time more complicated puts most people in a vexed mood--like the depressive who gets time out from his clinic and goes to the beach for a few days. He sends his psychiatrist a postcard. The message he writes might well have come from any of us, a reflection of technology's affect on our lives: "Having a wonderful time. Why?"
More than ever, the only constant in modern life is change. By the time we get around to reading the manual, we know that the offer of an upgrade will already be in the mail. Our expectation that whatever we possess is doomed to obsolescence has become relentless. And yet invention still comes as a constant surprise
There should be no such surprise, given the way innovation emerges--the way it has always emerged. In the history of scientific and technological endeavor, there are few if any cases in which the end was exactly what was intended at the beginning. In the mid-19th century, William Perkin sought a way to make artificial quinine out of coal tar and ended up with the first aniline dye. Alexander Graham Bell thought the telephone would be used only to inform people of the arrival of telegrams. Alessandro Volta designed a eudiometer for exploding bad-smelling gases with electricity. It ended up as the spark plug. A 1983 interuniversity computer network, intended as an academic exchange, ended up as www.everything.
The problem is that novelty, by definition, must be new. Innovation most often occurs when ideas or things are brought together in a way that never happened before, and when such juxtaposition occurs, the result is greater than the sum of the parts. One and one make three. A late 19th century engineer, Wilhelm Maybach, working for Daimler, puts together the newly invented perfume spray with the newly discovered gasoline and comes up with the carburetor. In 1823 Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh, working with a throwaway coal tar by-product, naphtha (used to clean out dyeing vats), stumbles across the fact that it will liquefy rubber. So he spreads the rubber between layers of cloth and invents the raincoat.
Accidents happen: aniline dye falls into a 19th century German researcher's petri dish that contains a bacterial culture, revealing that it preferentially stains and kills certain bacteria. The discovery eventually makes chemotherapy possible.
Serendipity intervenes: in the London summer of 1928, an open window in a hospital lab lets in a spore that settles on a staphylococcus-culture dish left unwashed. A mold grows and contaminates the staphylococcus. The lab user returns. Because he's bacteriologist Alexander Fleming, and because his lab has not been cleaned, penicillin is discovered.
Sometimes innovators don't even recognize the true import of their findings. In 1660s Germany, Magdeburg Mayor Otto von Guericke tries to solve the riddle of a compass needle that doesn't always point (as people thought it should) at the Pole Star. He rubs a model of the earth made of sulfur in order to attract his experimental compass needle. The rubbing produces a noise and a spark (which Guericke mentions in a casual footnote) that turns out to have been electricity.