Inventions aren’t born fully fledged, nor are they the work of a lone genius. In his latest foray into the past, Hackney-based historian and former journalist Gavin Weightman explores the nuances and collaboration that lead inevitably to the all-important ‘eureka!’ moment in the story of invention.
From his own school days as an amateur radio maker, Weightman has always been fascinated by how the impossible becomes possible. It is this fascination that is woven throughout Eureka: How Invention Happens, working backwards from the final product to the initial stages of exploration, the first breakthrough and the moment when it all becomes possible. “My book isn’t prescriptive,” he says. “It doesn’t tell you how to be an inventor, but rather takes a closer look at the pre-histories of inventions that involve all sorts of people.”
Social histories have dominated the genre of late. Weightman’s book may sound industrially focused, yet one of its underlying threads is the impact, even as an afterthought, of great inventions on our society. It’s as much a book about people as it is about products; not just those who dreamed up the things we take for granted today, but those who use them.
“Obviously inventions influence the human condition to some degree,” says Weightman. “Just look at social media as a result of a combination of the personal computer and the mobile phone, for example – but are we better or worse off because of them? Progress improves people’s lives and makes them easier, but I don’t think it fundamentally alters the balance of good and evil.”
This is a question that crops up more and more as we live in an increasingly digital world. There’s no doubt that, in this book, these inventions are thought of as a good thing. Weightman doesn’t subscribe to the idea that necessity is the mother of invention, instead presenting an entertaining and compelling snapshot of everyday innovators who went beyond the bounds of possibility.
“In researching my book, one of the most significant things I discovered is that those who have produced something practical have been largely outside the mainstream of science. It’s not that we don’t need scientists and engineers, it’s just that they don’t seem to think about who might need, or want, the item in question.”
Weightman’s book emphasises the importance of the amateur in the creation of some of the most ubiquitous technologies that surround us today – the aeroplane, the television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Their very status as unknowns meant they had very little to lose, were able to experiment and test without the pressure of commitment to existing techniques and technologies. By focusing on the everyman behind the eureka moment, Weightman is redefining a historical narrative, taking an original approach to the ingenuity of invention that’s at once scientifically revealing and socially intriguing.
It’s often a process of elimination, a hobby that turns into something far more serious as the boundaries are pushed. “There’s definitely an element of chance, of stumbling across things when it comes to invention,” says Weightman. “While some of the people I explore in my book, like the Wright brothers, had an idea of who might be interested in their creation, they usually hadn’t thought too far ahead, and just didn’t know how it would go.”
This pattern emerges throughout this narrative, as time and again industry leaders declared the telephone unlikely to take off in Britain, or dismissed the television as a load of rubbish.
Often, existing technology is what halts progress and creates resistance. Eureka: How Invention Happens explores how innovators have circumvented what seemed like insurmountable obstacles in their pursuit of the limits of reality. So when it comes to the creation of what still seems unimaginable to us today, like the flying car, what’s stopping us?
“Sometimes it’s the failure of imagination, and sometimes it’s the resistance of the very industry who you’d think would produce it. Amateurs will give it a go first, before bigger industry moves in; I believe the working robot will be created by someone totally unexpected. Industries should go on perfecting their products, and leave the inventing to amateurs and outsiders.”
Eureka: How Invention Happens
is published by Yale University Press.
ISBN: 9780300192087 RRP: £20.