Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the BBC series “The genius of invention”.
Coming from places like Drax Power Station in Yorkshire and Rolls Royce in Derby and using high key graphics, Michael Mosley and academics, Prof Mark Miodownik and Dr Cassie Newland put some of the greatest and most transformative inventions of all time under the spotlight.
Topics like the steam engine, the electrical generator, the jet engine and the telephone are explored with an emphasis on British invention and in a style that says “we still make things”.
The series, possibly uniquely, tries to explain how these inventions came about by the combination of sparks of inventive geniuses (what we call disruptive technology, in the innovation jargon) with steady incremental improvements. The team of experts separate myth from reality in the lives of the great inventors and celebrate some of the most remarkable stories in British history. Do watch it if you can; it is on the i-player for a while yet.
I am however making a plea for Innovation and Innovators to be given equal billing. Failing to cherish and to support our Innovators, is just making the valley of death so much deeper and wider; our culture and our broken support systems do enough on their own, we don’t need to make it worse.
Innovation is often adjacent to invention but it is a different skill. Innovation and invention both solve a problem, but it is not an Innovation until and unless there is sufficient demand, at a price which the market can afford. Genius inventors who ignored this reality often perished penniless, only to have had their names marked posthumously, by academic researchers and publicised by programmes such as this.
Take James Watt, for example. His “separate condenser steam engine” was rightly one of the transformative inventions noted in the first programme but it would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the attention of Matthew Boulton. Watt and his family were on the point of destitution, having made bad business decisions with the best of intentions and having had to call on his other skills and opportunities like surveying for the Caledonian Canal, when they decided to move from Glasgow to Birmingham at Boulton’s expense, some 15 years after the Watt patent.
Glasgow had missed it but the Brummy Boulton spotted the right business model for the Watt machine. He realised that it was too big and heavy to exploit by manufacture and transport; so he offered licences and help for local construction, in return for a royalty from the mine owners, who so desperately needed more efficient pumping from the simpler variants of the engine. Meanwhile, reasoned Boulton, other variants could power hammers and stamping presses. If he made these secretly in Birmingham, he could bring cheap metals to his SoHo factory and add lots of value by stamping coins, or making jewellery and other high added value metal pieces.
Boulton had the powerful connections to influence Parliamentarians and he made them see the economic value; so the Watt patent was renewed for a further 20 years, a rare event then or now.
At the start, all went well. The royalty for the early pumping machines was just one third of the coal savings over the nearest contender, an easy measurement when the two engines were sitting side by side. As the Watt engine began to dominate, grumbles began.
It got even worse when Watt and Boulton were able to add a crank-shaft to their engines. Such engines could power rotating machinery. Now, Watt was a very fair minded man in his own terms and he took time out to do the science for which we remember his name; the understanding of the equivalence of potential and kinetic energy. He then could calculate the royalty due for his licensees. So Watt and Boulton got very rich together but under the surface, the opposition to their iron grip on the industry was growing.
I must stop there. My point is that every story told in this series has a similar tale of the best of human values, genius and courage, as well as the worst including greed and jealousy. Indeed it goes on today in every company striving to be at the front end of a technology wave. If we are going to change our culture, we need to bring these stories to the fore, to learn the lessons, instil the culture and to create the talent to succeed.