MONEY Opinion

Innovation Isn’t Dead

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Dave Reede—Getty Images A farmer looks out over his field of canola being grown for biofuel while the encroachment of his farmland by housing development is in the background, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Most important innovations are only obvious in hindsight.

Wilbur and Orville Wright’s airplane flew for the first time in December 1903. It was one of the most important innovations of human history, changing the world in every imaginable way.

To celebrate their accomplishment, the press offered a yawn and a shoulder shrug.

Only a few newspapers reported the Wright’s first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. All of them butchered the facts. Later flights in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers’ home, still drew little attention.

David McCullough explains in his book The Wright Brothers:

“Have you heard what they’re up to out there?” people in town would say. “Oh, yes,” would be the usual answer, and the conversation would move on. Few took any interest in the matter or in the two brothers who were to become Dayton’s greatest heroes ever.

An exception was Luther Beard, managing editor of the Dayton Journal … “I used to chat with them in a friendly way and was always polite to them,” Beard would recall, “because I sort of felt sorry for them. They seemed like well-meaning, decent enough young men. Yet there they were, neglecting their business to waste their time day after day on that ridiculous flying machine.”

It wasn’t until 1908 — five years after the first flight and two years after the brothers patented their flying machine — that the press paid serious attention and the world realized how amazing the Wrights’ invention was. Not until World War II, three decades later, did the significance of the airplane become appreciated.

It’s a good lesson to remember today, because there’s a growing gripe about our economy. Take these headlines:

  • “Innovation in America is somewhere between dire straits and dead.”
  • “Innovation Is Dead.”
  • “We were promised flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”

The story goes like this: American innovation has declined, and what innovation we have left isn’t meaningful.

Cancer? Not cured. Biofuel? An expensive niche. Smartphones? Just small computers. Tablets? Just big smartphones.

I think the pessimists are wrong. It might take 20 years, but we’ll look back in awe of how innovative we are today.

Just like with the Wright brothers, most important innovations are only obvious in hindsight. There is a long history of world-changing technologies being written off as irrelevant toys even years after they were developed.

Take the car. It was one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. Yet it was initially disregarded as something rich people bought just to show how deep their pockets were. Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in his book The Big Change:

The automobile had been a high-hung, noisy vehicle which couldn’t quite make up its mind that it was not an obstreperous variety of carriage.

In the year 1906 Woodrow Wilson, who was then president of Princeton University, said, “Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the automobile,” and added that it offered “a picture of the arrogance of wealth.”

Or consider medicine. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic effects of the mold penicillium in 1928. It was one of the most important discoveries of all time. But a decade later, penicillin was still a laboratory toy. John Mailer and Barbara Mason of Northern Illinois University wrote:

Ten years after Fleming’s discovery, penicillin’s chemical structure was still unknown, and the substance was not available in sufficient amounts for medical research. In fact, few scientists thought it had much of a future.

It wasn’t until World War II, almost 20 years later, that penicillin was used in mass scale.

Or take this amazing 1985 New York Times article dismissing the laptop computer:

People don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so …

Yes, there are a lot of people who would like to be able to work on a computer at home. But would they really want to carry one back from the office with them? It would be much simpler to take home a few floppy disks tucked into an attache case.

Or the laser. Matt Ridley wrote in the book The Rational Optimist:

When Charles Townes invented the laser in the 1950s, it was dismissed as ‘an invention looking for a job’. Well, it has now found an astonishing range of jobs nobody could have imagined, from sending telephone messages down fiberglass wires to reading music off discs to printing documents, to curing short sight.

Here’s Newsweek dismissing the Internet as a fad in 1995:

The truth [is] no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on a computer. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach.

Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet.

Uh, sure.

You can go on and on. Rare is the innovation that is instantly recognized for its potential. Some of the most meaningful inventions took decades for people to notice.

The typical path of how people respond to life-changing inventions is something like this:

  1. I’ve never heard of it.
  2. I’ve heard of it but don’t understand it.
  3. I understand it, but I don’t see how it’s useful.
  4. I see how it could be fun for rich people, but not me.
  5. I use it, but it’s just a toy.
  6. It’s becoming more useful for me.
  7. I use it all the time.
  8. I could not imagine life without it.
  9. Seriously, people lived without it?

This process can take years, or decades. It always looks like we haven’t innovated in 10 or 20 years because it takes 10 or 20 years to notice an innovation.

Part of the problem is that we never look for innovation in the right spot.

Big corporations get the most media attention, but innovation doesn’t come from big corporations. It comes from the 19-year-old MIT kid tinkering in his parents’ basement. If you look at big companies and ask, “What have you done for the world lately?” you’re looking in the wrong spot. Of course they haven’t done anything for the world lately. Their sole mission is to repurchase stock and keep management consultants employed.

Someone, somewhere, right now is inventing or discovering something that will utterly change the future. But you’re probably not going to know about it for years. That’s always how it works. Just like Wilbur and Orville.

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