Complexity is the mother of invention

A brief history of innovation: In the beginning, there were lone inventors who changed the world. John Harrison was one of the most prominent – the clock-maker became famous and (eventually) rich in the 18th century by building a clock so accurate and so resilient in the face of changing temperatures and constant rocking that it could be taken on board a ship and used to calculate the ship’s longitude. In doing so, Harrison pitted himself against the might of the Royal Observatory, which had been established in 1675 by King Charles II in order to solve the longitude problem with an astronomical method. The loner got there first.

As science and technology progressed, innovation became more and more industrialised. Thomas Edison set up perhaps the world’s first industrial research laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. Edison set the tone for the 20th century, with expensive research projects carried out on a colossal scale. Among the most famous were government efforts such as the Manhattan Project, to create the first atomic bomb, and the Apollo moon landings.

And then, towards the end of the last century, the tide seemed to turn in favour of the innovation minnows once again. Companies such as Microsoft and Google were set up in spare rooms and garages. Large companies seemed to be abandoning in-house research and buying start-ups. Powerful computers became cheap enough for most pockets.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.