So argues Matt Ridley in a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal, Don’t Look for Inventions Before Their Time.
Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.
The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.
… Just as it made little sense to invent the wheelie-case before the great expansion of air travel, so it made little sense to invent the laptop before 1982, when computers had begin to shrink, or the bicycle before the emergence of the motorcar had resulted in the appearance of smooth roads and pneumatic tires.
The more you examine the history of technology, the more evolutionary it looks. Invention is incremental rather than revolutionary, inevitable rather than idiosyncratic, and it emerges unplanned from the cross-fertilization of ideas. Once the Internet exists, the search engine will not be far behind. Even something that seems unique to one culture, such as the boomerang in Australia, turns out not to be. There are 3,300-year-old returning boomerangs in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt.
Yet another reason why the patent system—which grants roughly 17-year monopolies to the first inventor to file for a patent application on his idea—is unjust.