Jared Diamond on Inventors and Innovation

by Stephan Kinsella on February 23, 2011

From Thoughts on Invention, Innovation, and Patents from ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ at the Moving to Freedom blog:

I’m working on Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Good book so far, although I’ve ground almost to a halt halfway through. (I’d probably make better progress if it showed up in blog-sized chunks in my feed reader every day.) I like sweeping accounts of history, and this one presents many new ways to look at things. It also gets me thinking about the current sorry state of the patent system, with these excerpts:

Book Cover: 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' by Jared Diamond

All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugurated commercial success. The form of the invention eventually adopted might have been somewhat different without the recognized inventor’s contribution. But the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product.


My examples so far have been drawn from modern technologies, because their histories are well known. My two main conclusions are that technology develops cumulatively, rather than in isolated heroic acts, and that it finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need. These conclusions surely apply with much greater force to the undocumented history of ancient technology. When Ice Age hunter-gatherers noticed burned sand and limestone residues in their hearths, it was impossible for them to foresee the long, serendipitous accumulation of discoveries that would lead to the first Roman glass windows (around A.D. 1), by way of the first objects with surface glazes (around 4000 B.C.), the first free-standing glass objects of Egypt and Mesopotamia (around 2500 B.C.), and the first glass vessels (around 1500 B.C.).


Once an inventor has discovered a use for a new technology, the next step is to persuade society to adopt it. Merely having a bigger, faster, more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready acceptance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or adopted only after prolonged resistance.

–Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, p245-247

(However, see Boldrin and Levine’s book Against Intellectual Monopoly for discussion of how Watt and the Wright brothers actually impeded progress for many years.)

Some other good IP related quotes from the same blog:

From John Carmack: Patents Considered Horrifying:

I just finished reading Masters of Doom by David Kushner, a book about John Carmack and John Romero. When the story is well told, I love books like this about people who have done great things.

I don’t play games much these days, but I loved Doom and Quake, and have admired Carmack in particular for his apparent programming virtuosity, his views on patents, and his support of free software. (I also thought Romero was pretty cool, and gained a greater appreciation for his work from reading the book.)

On patents, there was this from his days at Softdisk:

Al had never seen a side scrolling like this for the PC. “Wow,” he told Carmack, “you should patent this technology.”

Carmack turned red. “If you ever ask me to patent anything,” he snapped, “I’ll quit.” Al assumed Carmack was trying to protect his own financial interests, but in reality he had struck what was an increasingly raw nerve for the young, idealistic programmer. It was one of the few things that could truly make him angry. It was ingrained in his bones since his first reading of the Hacker Ethic.

All of science and technology and culture and learning and academics is built upon using the work that others have done before, Carmack thought. But to take a patenting approach and say it’s like, well, this idea is my idea, you cannot extend this idea in any way, because I own this idea — it just seems so fundamentally wrong. Patents were jeopardizing the very thing that was central to his life: writing code to solve problems. If the world became a place in which he couldn’t solve a problem without infringing on someone’s patents, he would be very unhappy living there.

– David Kushner, Masters of Doom

And another patent quote, not from the book:

The idea that I can be presented with a problem, set out to logically solve it with the tools at hand, and wind up with a program that could not be legally used because someone else followed the same logical steps some years ago and filed for a patent on it is horrifying.

– John Carmack

I also recently came across this great quote on copyright from Lord Macauley:

Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly. My honourable and learned friend talks very contemptuously of those who are led away by the theory that monopoly makes things dear. That monopoly makes things dear is certainly a theory, as all the great truths which have been established by the experience of all ages and nations, and which are taken for granted in all reasonings, may be said to be theories. It is a theory in the same sense in which it is a theory that day and night follow each other, that lead is heavier than water, that bread nourishes, that arsenic poisons, that alcohol intoxicates. If, as my honourable and learned friend seems to think, the whole world is in the wrong on this point, if the real effect of monopoly is to make articles good and cheap, why does he stop short in his career of change? Why does he limit the operation of so salutary a principle to sixty years? Why does he consent to anything short of a perpetuity? He told us that in consenting to anything short of a perpetuity he was making a compromise between extreme right and expediency. But if his opinion about monopoly be correct, extreme right and expediency would coincide. Or rather, why should we not restore the monopoly of the East India trade to the East India Company? Why should we not revive all those old monopolies which, in Elizabeth’s reign, galled our fathers so severely that, maddened by intolerable wrong, they opposed to their sovereign a resistance before which her haughty spirit quailed for the first and for the last time? Was it the cheapness and excellence of commodities that then so violently stirred the indignation of the English people? I believe, Sir, that I may with safety take it for granted that the effect of monopoly generally is to make articles scarce, to make them dear, and to make them bad. And I may with equal safety challenge my honourable friend to find out any distinction between copyright and other privileges of the same kind; any reason why a monopoly of books should produce an effect directly the reverse of that which was produced by the East India Company’s monopoly of tea, or by Lord Essex’s monopoly of sweet wines. Thus, then, stands the case. It is good that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.


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