Did you know that the steam engine ” was first created by Heron of Alexandria in the first century A.D. The device created by Heron was truly inspired, unlike anything else that came before, but never considered to be anything but a toy with only very limited practical application.
Whoops. I find developments like the above fascinating. I stumbled across an old blog post exploring the story of innovation, and it once again got me thinking about lost discoveries, such as cement.
Why does this happen?
The Political Calculations blog has this to say:
The answer lies in the networks (the paths) connecting each inventor to the world in which they lived. When you consider that the Greeks had invented rail tracks in Corinth nearly 700 years before Heron’s invention of his steam engine, it was literally possible for Heron or his contemporaries to go the next step and develop a working locomotive. It didn’t happen because Heron’s invention was essentially isolated. Neither he nor his contemporaries could make the leap from his invention to truly useful application, despite having many of the pieces that only needed to be put together.
By contrast, Watt was much more tightly linked to the other inventors and developers of his day than Heron could ever hope to be. Watt’s invention was quickly disseminated, adapted for use in new applications and constantly refined and improved. It’s no accident that Watt’s steam engine powered the development that came afterward – it was the network of people interested in the opportunities made possible by Watt’s invention that made it possible.
In the past, I was interest in coming up with a comprehensive list of lost discoveries and searching for a pattern in their stories. Network effects is certainly a logical theory.