Are Inventions Inevitable? Simultaneous Invention and The Incremental Nature of Discovery

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. What if he had never been born, Would we still have light bulbs? And would they still have been invented in 1879? It turns out that this is not just a philosophical question and the answer is yes, the light bulb would have been invented at roughly the same time. We know this because at least 23 other people built prototype light bulbs before Edison1, including two groups who filed patents and fought legal battles with him over the rights (Sawyer and Mann in the U.S. and Swan in England)2.

Independently invented lightbulbs from Edison, Swan, and Maxim. Image from “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly.

This is not a strange coincidence that happened with electric lighting, it is the norm in both technological invention and scientific and mathematical discovery. Newton and Leibniz independently invented calculus, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both filed a patent for the telephone on the same day — within three hours of each other — and sunspots were simultaneously discovered by four scientists living in four different countries. The list of simultaneous independent inventions includes the airplane (2 people), the steamboat (5 people), photography (2 people), the telegraph (5 people), and the telescope (9 people). In science and math it includes decimal fractions (2 people), the theory of natural selection (2 people), the discovery of oxygen (2 people), molecular theory (2 people), and the conservation of energy (4 people)3.

A study by Ogburn and Thomas4 in 1922 produced a list of 148 major inventions and discoveries that were made independently by two or more groups at the same time. A similar study by Merton5 in 1960 led him to conclude that “the pattern of independent multiple discoveries in science is in principle the dominant pattern, rather than a subsidiary one”. Lest you think that only the landmark discoveries covered in these surveys are subject to multiple invention, recent work by Lemley6 suggests that 90-98% of patent lawsuits are filed against independent inventors and not copiers. Even the idea that multiple simultaneous invention is the norm was advanced by multiple independent groups at the same time7.

All this synchronicity reveals something fundamental about the nature of invention. In popular culture inventors are romanticized as lone geniuses working in home laboratories who come up with completely new ideas — things that establishment thinkers initially dismiss as nonsense. But in practice, it just doesn’t happen this way. Most inventors add to a body of work that is built up by many people over decades. They rise to fame when their invention, one among many in a long chain, is a crucial step that finally enables a practical telephone, airplane, or mathematical proof.

In the case of the light bulb, Edison’s main contribution was a new filament made out of a certain species of bamboo that worked better than the carbonized paper used by Sawyer and Mann before him. The incandescent bulb — a resistive filament looped inside an evacuated glass bulb — had already been developed. Filament material continued to be improved upon by others after Edison’s work. Samuel Morse’s patented contribution to the telegraph was the application of efficient electromagnets for boosting the signal in the wire over long distances. The idea of sending messages over wires using electricity already existed in the world. Morse did not even invent these new electromagnets, but built on the work of Joseph Henry8.

Viewed in this light simultaneous invention is not so surprising. As Lemley puts it, “An isolated flash of genius could strike at any time, while the thirteenth step in a multistage inventive process is likely to come after the twelfth.” The incremental nature of invention has another fascinating consequence besides simultaneous invention. Since significant discoveries require a base of knowledge and tools that is outside the scope of any one person to create, new inventions only happen when “the time is right”. Given the knowledge and tools that exist at any one point in history there is only a finite set of inventions that are possible to create. These things lie within the “adjacent possible” — all those new inventions and ideas that are one step removed from what we already have. Steven Johnson describes how this played out for the discovery of Oxygen in 1774, which was done independently by both Priestley and Scheele9:

“To go looking for oxygen, Priestley and Scheele needed the conceptual framework that the air was itself something worth studying and that it was made up of distinct gases; neither of these ideas became widely accepted until the second half of the eighteenth century. But they also needed the advanced scales that enabled them to measure the miniscule changes in weight triggered by oxidation, technology that was itself only a few decades old in 1774.”

The invention of the steam engine was also only possible because of the work built up over prior decades. By the beginning of the 18th century “[t]he nature of the vacuum and the method of obtaining it were known. Steam boilers capable of sustaining any desired pressure had been made. The piston had been utilized and the safety valve invented”. After this, early versions of the steam engine were built by Savery and then Newcomen before James watt improved the engine yet again by adding a separate condenser and became known to history as the inventor of the steam engine10.

Taken together, all this suggests that inventions are inevitable. Once an idea enters the realm of the adjacent possible the supply of people who are smart enough to act on it is sufficiently large that the idea will quickly be discovered, often by multiple people: “given the electric motor and the train, is not the electric train inevitable?”s. Inventions are not pioneering feats of individuals, but the necessary results of a social process. Mix together people, technology, and the laws of physics and then stir for a decade or two. Out will pop a set of inventions that will expand the boundaries of the adjacent possible so that you can repeat the recipe.

This idea is supported by research into the inventions of early humans who were isolated on separate continents. If inventions are inevitable, then we would expect that each civilization would develop roughly the same tools and that they would invent them in the same order. Kevin Kelly summarizes this research in his book “What Technology Wants” 12: “Each technological progression around the world follows a remarkably similar approximate order. Stone flakes yield to control of fire, then to cleavers and ball weapons … The sequence is fairly uniform. Knifepoints always follow fire, Human burials always follow knifepoints, and the arch precedes welding.” When we invent new technology, we are not blazing a trail into the future, we are uncovering a path that was already there.

1. Fridel, Israel, and Finn, “Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention” via Kelly, “What Technology Wants”.
2. Lemley, “The Myth of the Sole Inventor” via Thompson at The Atlantic.
3. Ogburn and Thomas, “Are Inventions Inevitable?” via Lemley (note 2).
4. Ibid.
5. Merton, “Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery” via Lemley (note 2).
6. Cotropia, and Lemley, “Copying in Patent Law” via Lemley (note 2).
7. Merton (note 5).
8. Lemley (note 2).
9. Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From”.
10. Ogburn and Thomas (note 3).
11. Ogburn and Thomas (note 3).
12. Kelly, “What Technology Wants”.


13 thoughts on “Are Inventions Inevitable? Simultaneous Invention and The Incremental Nature of Discovery

  1. mattmaier says:

    I wonder if the same idea applies to processes. For example, in things like law, business and engineering, the process for dealing with a challenge is often considered a tool in its own right. I believe Baghdad produced more innovation than anywhere else in the world for a couple hundred years…right up until fundamentalist forces rejected the process of open inquiry. If fire always follows stone flakes, does something like Total Quality Management always follow the assembly line? Does open source always follow patents and copyright?

    • mgriz says:

      Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that it would apply to processes too. In the Kevin Kelly book referenced in the post he suggests that it even applies to cultural things like books and movies.

  2. DylanC says:

    Awesome post, mgriz! I’m curious what implications this would have on economic policy. Both liberal and conservative economists believe that they can speed up the rate of technological innovation through specific policy measures. Conservatives often argue that if we unencumber individual innovators from restrictive regulatory measures, that the rate of technological innovation would increase. Liberals often argue that federal investment in basic science can increase this rate more effectively. Considering all of the observations you lay out in your post, which do you think is a more effective approach?

    • mgriz says:

      yeah that’s an interesting topic. I’m not sure what multiple simultaneous invention implies with regard to this question. Any ideas?

      Many inventions happen in response to some basic science breakthrough. Understanding electricity and magnetism led to applications in communications, lighting, transportation, etc..

      In terms of regulation, it seems like the patent system could use some work. The Lemley paper cited in the post investigates this. Patent law is based on the idea that a lone inventor can come up with new ideas that the experts haven’t thought of if he is given the proper incentive. There are some other justifications for patents that people have come up with but it is not really clear that any of them actually apply in practice.

      • DylanC says:

        It would seem to me that the concept of simultaneous invention generally undermines the Randian ideal that there exists an elite class of ultra-productive individuals whom we can thank for all of our innovation and growth. The collective, incremental approach seems to jibe better with liberal economic theory (at least as it pertains to pro-innovation policy).

        Kevin Kelly was on a right-leaning economics podcast discussing his ‘What technology wants’ article. It was a pretty interesting discussion.

      • mattmaier says:

        I don’t think patents were ever about the inventor; they are just an incentive for the inventor to reveal their invention rather than keep it a secret. It benefits society to have them describe it in enough detail that others can replicate it. In return the government guarantees them a short-term monopoly on producing it. Without that everything would remain a secret. For example, SpaceX isn’t patenting any of their rocket engine designs. They don’t have to, and the legal monopoly is redundant if they just keep it secret. No one will ever be able to look at the engine without their permission anyway.

  3. mgriz says:

    I am definitely not an expert on patent theory, but from what it says in that Lemley paper (footnote 2 above) there are three different theories for why patents work. The main theory is that patents give an incentive to individual inventors who can solve problems that stump the experts. The theory you are describing about sharing information is called “disclosure theory” and there is a third theory called commercialization theory in which the justification for patents is that it is better for commercialization if one group controls the invention. In the paper he questions whether any of these three theories are good descriptions of how patents work in practice.

    I’ve heard that about SpaceX. They are trying to keep secrets from the Chinese by not patenting.

  4. […] patented them. Examples include the Polio Vaccine, the air plane, the telephone, the jet engine and Electric Light bulb.  It hardly makes since to grant a monopoly to the one who happens to get to the patent office […]

  5. SM Shihab Siddiqui says:

    Excellent post !!
    To Dylan Cs question of policy relevance, and productivity – I think innovation depends on 1. existing knowledge base 2. Quality of general workforce 3. incentive to work in innovation 4. Social attitude towards innovation (determines resources available)
    This article focuses on the existing knowledge base. For instance; the flame of Alexandria failed to continue even with presence of a good knowledge base due to sociopolitical attitude. The case of medieval Europe also comes to mind.
    Quality of general workforce is crucial too, notice the high prevalence of innovation in already developed places.
    Existing knowledge base is thus kind of like a necessary condition for new innovation but not sufficient, social acceptance/encouragement is also required. What economics is trying to achieve is not innovation as per se but ”faster innovation” by providing incentives and opportunities for innovation. The process described above still holds and is made faster by providing the necessary fuel for innovation.
    There was a question about individual brilliance. Just in one word ”Newton saw further because he was standing on shoulder of giants (the existing contribution)” but the vast majority of the people failed to do so.

  6. J.Hamilton says:

    I am quite appreciative of this post and the sharings.. It occurs to me that everything known or ever will be known is “out there” (this is a fundamental precept in dowsing), and all it takes is an intrepid spirit with a bit of a sixth sense to sniff out what’s next. It appears it is the intuitive rather than linear hard work and linear mental discoveries that brings us “discoveries.”

    My work says the mind has huge limitations (founded in resistance, i.e., protecting the brain on overload) and produces little of value. Instead, the cutting edge is becoming more conscious (reducing resistance), opening up to the Cosmos and becoming receivers to the overall order that the Universe offers. I believe we will discover this is how inventions, discoveries, processes and our next bout of evolution comes from, i..e, intuitive insight, receptivity and a capacity to ground the fruits of the Universe expressing. After all, this is what this post expresses..

    I look forward to the day the patent office and the gov that runs the patent office is obsolete, and we instead look to a larger governance that truly treats everyone and everything as equals.

  7. kuntalchaki says:

    Great knowledge I have gathered…

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