Great ideas that changed the world, and the people they rode in on


Obviously, it wasn’t that human beings had suddenly become smarter, or innately more inclined to think about lightbulbs: it was that an entire network of ideas from seemingly unrelated research -- materials science, electricity, the understanding of vacuums -- had come together to make the lightbulb thinkable for the first time. Each of those ideas originated in a human mind, but the constellation they formed had a kind of life of its own, just as the ideology of social conservatism has a kind of life of its own in American society.

Which is worth thinking about as we enter another Nobel season starting tomorrow. Scientific ideas originate from a large number of contributors and are limited by the available technology to detect phenomena, and yet Nobel Prizes can only be given to at most three people.


The idea of a lightbulb must have been obvious to anyone who ever used way too thin wire for way too high current…

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Ahem: The idea of a lightbulb must have been obvious to anyone smart person who ever used way too thin wire for way too high current…

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Or if the current was just a bit too high, the toaster.

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Once an idea is close to realization, there’s a mad dash to implement it. Not only have many major inventions been contested in the patent courts for years, but every technologically adept country has its own story of the invention of big items (automobile, telephone, television, computer), involving local players.

Ladies and germs, I give you the ‘Zeitgeist’.

Curiously, even a “mad dash” of invention is still only a few dozen groups of people worldwide. They end up defining the Zeitgeist of the following decade.

Perhaps I should have said ‘nascent’ first but I think the concept holds enough water on its own.

That’s for thicker wires, too. (Or a space heater.) Lots of power needed for heating, way more than for lighting. A kilowatt space heater is not much, a kilowatt of light even with a lousy lightbulb is close to stop it stop it my eyes.

For thin wires and way much current, it may lead to a photoflash. (Those bulbs with magnesium wire, electrically ignited.)

And for very thin wires and WAY too much current, the EBW.


That’s what I consider kind of scary.

I find interesting the relationship between the invention itself and the Zeitgeist. For example, the invention of rockets to carry bombs between countries during WWII led to a lot of science fiction for the next 20 years of rockets carrying humans to other worlds. Then that became a reality (sorta) with the massively-funded “invention” of human spaceflight and the Apollo moon landings. Then the sci-fi about traveling to the moon changed quite a bit.

Another thing about inventions is that when a big powerful country like the USA does NOT invent something, it works very hard to convince its citizens that it DID invent it.

Alan Turing and Conrad Zuse were the people who are considered the primary inventors of the computer… a Brit and a German. ENIAC was not a general-purpose computer, it was an electronic adding machine, designed to run artillery firing calculations. Yet who gets the credit in the USA? Those Eckert and Mauchly guys, who Turing dragged kicking and screaming into the world of symbolic computing.


“It’s steam engines when it’s steam engine time.” - Charles Fort

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Does that really happen?
Oh, wait. I’m Scottish.

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I recently watched the episode of the rebooted “Cosmos” series that discussed Dr. Clair Patterson and his groundbreaking research on lead, which (among other things) made him the first person to learn the age of the earth. There was a nice sequence in the animated dramatization of Patterson making the final adjustments to his equipment after years of painstaking work. As he gathers the final measurements, he whispers humble “thank yous” to the scientists over the centuries whose work made his discovery possible.


Oh, the Russians-invented-everything jokes during the Soviet Bloc era!

One was along the lines that because there were no wires found in the archaeology digs there, they had wireless communication long ago.

Another was about the inventor of telephone - the great Telefon Telefonovich Telefonov. Who put one end of wire to his ear and the other up his ass and heard shit.

And so on…


There’s also the trope that the ancient Chinese invented everything. I’m sure it has its adherents among the Chinese, but I’m familiar with it only in Western culture, which I find curious.

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Tropes that a culture invented everything? Indian.


Ah, but it took generations for a truly enlightened individual to come along and create the Jesus toaster.