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:
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:
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:
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:
Or the laser. Matt Ridley wrote in the book The Rational Optimist:
Here’s Newsweek dismissing the Internet as a fad in 1995:
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:
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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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