It always surprises me when I learn more about history. So many things that we think are new were discovered long ago. The Chinese were among the world’s great innovators back in the 10th to the 13th centuries, before one of the country’s many dynastic changes.
China’s four greatest inventions are claimed to be papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing -- both woodblock and with movable type. From these evolved many more inventions, most of them as many as two thousand years ago; that’s right, between 400 B.C. and 1400 A.D. Few would associate many things -- such as the blast furnace, land mines, rockets, chain-drive and many other inventions -- with the Chinese of centuries ago. Paper money was also a Chinese invention of this bygone era. These and many more creations were products of their innovative efforts.
For an amazing “journey” I recommend a fascinating book, 1421 -- The Year China Discovered America which chronicles and provides “proof” of a massive Chinese fleet of huge ships that set out to circumnavigate the earth.
If you can accept that a radical amount of innovation occurred thousands of years ago, then why not look at the “old ways” in seeking out ideas for “new ways?” I spent a number of years in the bicycle business and many times we were hoping to patent our “new ideas” only to discover that they had been done before -- decades or a century before. Often the materials differed. Bike frames were once made of wood instead of steel, for example.
Amazingly, we found many concepts that were tried but fell short of success because the materials or processing technologies had not yet been discovered or developed. A simple example is molded plastics. These materials didn’t exist in any meaningful way until the mid-1800s and then processing capabilities were almost non-existent. One of the first applications was the use of “celluloid” to make synthetic billiard balls.
Revolutions followed that changed our lives and our world: Celluloid expanded into uses such as buttons and letter openers. Bakelite, a phenol based resin was used in early telephones. Cellophane transparent wrap was born in 1913. In the 1920’s molded plastics grew with the use of urea formaldehyde (polyurethane). Nylon stockings for women were introduced in the 1940’s. Plastic bottles were first commercially done in the later 1940’s.
Want more from John Mariotti? Check out these stories:
- Innovate Here and Now—In America
- Don’t Underestimate the Cash-to-Cash Cycle
- Looking for Innovation in the 'Wrong Places'
In technology after technology, we built on past inventions. Sir Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further than most, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants." Nucor, among the leaders in American steel making was born of necessity and opportunity. Necessity because the old basic steel production processes were reaching the maximum of their effectiveness. Opportunity because so much steel scrap was being created (thanks in part to the growth of the automobile industry) that a way to use it, recycle it and convert it into new steel might be better than digging iron ore, and going through the energy intensive, and difficult smelting processes. Nucor’s innovation was done piecemeal; one step up the ladder of specifications at a time until finally, it had refined its electric furnace processes to make the finest strip and sheet steel. At each step, it took the least desirable part of the steel product mix, and captured that market position. Then it stepped up one grade at a time.
Today’s materials technologies: Nano-tech, bio-tech, micro-electronics, composites and so forth present rich opportunities for innovation built upon older ideas, but adapted for future needs. When combined with the sophisticated numerical/computerized process controls, exotic measurement techniques, and more, the sky is the limit. The only limitations that must be overcome are those of pride and arrogance. Many of the best ideas ever developed -- have already been developed -- but just ran into limitations. Now we know how to overcome most of those limitations.
Too many people scoff at the fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but what if these were just “seers” ahead of their time? These people were the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg of their time. Who believed that Bill Gates could build upon an assortment of bought and borrowed technology to dominate the PC operating systems, or that Steve Jobs could create the stunning success Apple has become by doing the unthinkable -- Thinking Different?
Who will be our new futuristic innovators, and “whose shoulders will they stand on?” I have no idea, but we live in exciting times and the future will be no exception. And you can bet at least some of it will be new ideas derived from old wisdom.
John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His Web site is Mariotti.net.