Why Did Man Begin to Invent Things?
In the beginning, man never deliberately set out to invent things. Man’s first inventions were accidentally discovered, or built because of the need, or the desire, to improve a hard life. So, early inventions were simple tools-devices with which to cut, to hammer, to dig, or to throw.
These tools, at first, functioned as extensions of human hands. Much later, man’s inventiveness extended to his eyes, ears and legs. Eventually, he even learned to fly in machines. However, a million years ago, primitive man could only shape stones and sticks to give his already skillful hands added power.
According to the well-known saying, “mother is the necessity of invention”; in other words, people invent things because society has difficult problems that need solving. There’s some truth in this, though less than you might suppose. It would be more accurate to say that inventions succeed when they do useful jobs that people recognize need doing.
But the reasons inventions appear in the first place often have little or nothing to do with “necessity,” especially in the modern age when virtually every need we have is satisfied by any number of existing gadgets and machines.
Some inventions appear because of scientific breakthroughs. DNA fingerprinting (the process by which detectives take human samples at crime scenes and use them to identify criminals) is one good example. It only became possible after the mid-20th century when scientists understood what DNA was and how it worked: the scientific discovery made possible the new forensic technology.
The same is true of many other inventions. Marconi’s technological development of radio followed on directly from the scientific work done by Lodge, Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and numerous other scientists who fathomed out the mysteries of electricity and magnetism during the 19th century.
Generally, scientists are more interested in advancing human knowledge than in commercializing their discoveries; it takes a determined entrepreneur like Marconi or Edison to recognize the wider, social value of an idea—and turn theoretical science into practical technology.
But it would be very wrong to suggest that inventions (practical technologies) always follow on from scientific discoveries (often abstract, impractical theories). Many of the world’s greatest inventors lacked any scientific training and perfected their ideas through trial and error. The scientific reasons why their inventions succeeded or failed were only discovered long afterward.
Engines (which are machines that burn fuel to release heat energy that can make something move) are a good example of this. The first engines, powered by steam, were developed entirely by trial and error in the 18th century by such people as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. The scientific theory of how these engines worked, and how they could be improved, was only figured out about a century later by Frenchman Nicolas Sadi Carnot.
Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all time, famously told the world that “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”; he had little or no scientific training and owed much of his success to persistence and determination (when he came to develop his electric light, he tested no fewer than 6000 different materials to find the perfect filament).