Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

From Farnham Street:

The printing press and innovation.
From Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:
As many scholars have noted, Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation, more bricolage than breakthrough. Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine—the movable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself—had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. Movable type, for instance, had been independently conceived by a Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng four centuries before. But the Chinese (and, subsequently, the Koreans) failed to adapt the technology for the mass production of texts, in large part because they imprinted the letterforms on the page by hand rubbing, which made the process only slightly more efficient than your average medieval scribe. Thanks to his training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg made some brilliant modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system, but without the press itself, his meticulous lead fonts would have been useless for creating mass-produced Bibles.
An important part of Gutenberg’s genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem. We don’t know exactly what chain of events led Gutenberg to make that associative link; few documentary records remain of Gutenberg’s life between 1440 and 1448, the period during which he assembled the primary components of his invention. But it is clear that Gutenberg had no formal experience pressing grapes. His radical breakthrough relied, instead, on the ubiquity of the screw press in Rhineland winemaking culture, and on his ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology. He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.
And from Samuel Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts:
It turns out that the printing press is far from simple....MORE