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How Dependent Are We On Individuals For Change?

Historic changes and technical advances have a life of their own – and less dependent on individuals than we normally assume.

Obviously a leadership that follows, instead of leads will make no difference. | David Fitzsimmons / Arizona Daily Star on March 28, 2012; source & courtesy – caglecartoons.com

Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, put up a long post on his blog The Technium, about 3 years ago. This is easily the most exhaustive compendium of ‘near-simultaneous’ discoveries, innovations, creations, ideas from the ‘modern’ world on the net.

The sheer ‘obviousness’ of this idea first came to me from Arthur Koestler’s trilogy of Ghost In The Machine, The Act Of Creation and The Sleepwalkers. Koestler spoke of ripeness of an idea.

Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain. (Gita 11:32)

Therefore get up. Prepare to fight and win glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by My arrangement, and you, O Savyasaci, can be but an instrument in the fight. (Gita 11:33) Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain. (Gita 11:32)
Therefore get up. Prepare to fight and win glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by My arrangement, and you, O Savyasaci, can be but an instrument in the fight. (Gita 11:33)

Before that in a different context Victor Hugo meant no one can stop an idea whose time has come (in French, the original sentence is On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées).

Or when the Bhagwad Gita talks of enemies whose time has come, whose death is but a formality and their killing but a nominal act (Bhagwad Gita 11:32; 11:33).

Would India have got independence without Gandhiji? Sooner or a little later. Maybe different in shape and size. The British story was over. The British knew they were going. Early evidence was the complete stoppage of investment in railways by 1920s.

So what was Gandhiji’s role and contribution? Probably in being able to engage with the West – using ideas and concepts that the West understood. Grace under pressure?

This year the world celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin to honor his theory’s impact upon our science and culture. Overlooked in the celebrations was Alfred Wallace, who also came up with the same theory of evolution, at approximately the same time. If poor Wallace, too, had succumbed to his Indonesian infection, and Darwin gone, it is clear from other naturalist’s notebooks that someone else, perhaps Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, would have arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection,What seems to be an odd coincidence is repeated many times in technical invention as well as scientific discovery. Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied to patent the telephone on the same day, Feb 14, 1876. This improbable simultaneity (Gray applied 3 hours before Bell) led to mutual accusations of espionage, plagiarism, bribery, and fraud. Gray was ill-advised by his patent attorney to drop his claim for priority because his attorney said the telephone “was not worth serious attention.”

while Bell got the master patent, at least three other tinkerers beside Gray had made working models of phones years before. In fact Antonio Meucci had patented his “teletrofono” more than a decade earlier in 1860, using the same principles as Bell and Gray, but because of his poor English, poverty, and lack of business acumen, he was unable to renew his patent in 1874. And not far behind them all was the inimitable Thomas Edison, who inexplicably didn’t win the telephone race, but invented the microphone for it the next year.

The procession of technological discoveries is inevitable. When the conditions are right — when the necessary web of supporting technology needed for every invention is established — then the next adjacent technological step will emerge as if on cue. If inventor X does not produce it, inventor Y will. The invention of the microphone, the laser, the transistor, the steam turbine, the waterwheel, and the discoveries of oxygen, DNA, and Boolean logic, were all inevitable in roughly the period they appeared. However the particular form of the microphone, its exact circuit, or the specific design of the laser, or the particular materials of the transistor, or the dimensions of the steam turbine, or the peculiar notation of the formula, or the specifics of any invention are not inevitable. Rather they will vary quite widely due to the personality of their finder, the resources at hand, the culture of society they are born into, the economics funding the discovery, and the influence of luck and chance. An incandescent light bulb based on a coil of carbonized bamboo filament heated within a vacuum bulb is not inevitable, but “the electric incandescent light bulb” is. The concept of “the electric incandescent light bulb” abstracted from all the details that can vary while still producing the result — luminance from electricity, for instance — is ordained by the technium’s trajectory. We know this because “the electric incandescent light bulb” was invented, re-invented, co-invented, or “first invented” dozens of times. In their book “Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention”, Robert Friedel and Paul Israel list 23 inventors of incandescent bulbs prior to Edison. It might be fairer to say that Edison was the very last “first” inventor of the electric light.

Dig deep enough in the history of any type of discovery in any field and you’ll find more than one claimant for the first priority.

In fact you are likely to find many parents for each novelty. Sunspots were first discovered by four separate observers, including Galileo, in the same year, 1611. We know of six different inventors of the thermometer, and three of the hypodermic needle. Edward Jenner was preceded by four other scientists who all independently discovered the efficiency of vaccinations. Adrenalin was “first” isolated four times. Three different geniuses discovered (or invented) decimal fractions. The electric telegraph was re-invented by Henry, Morse, Cooke, Wheatstone, and Steinheil.  The Frenchman Daguerre is famous for inventing photography, but three others (Niepce, Florence, and Talbot) also independently came upon the same process. The invention of logarithms is usually credit to two mathematicians, Napier and Brigs, but actually a third mathematician, Burgi, invented them three years earlier. Several inventors in both England and America simultaneously came up with the typewriter. The existence of the 8th planet, Neptune, was independently predicted by two scientists in the same year, 1846. The liquefaction of oxygen, the electrolysis of aluminum, and the stereochemistry of carbon, for just three examples in chemistry, were each independently discovered by more than one person, and in each case their simultaneous discovery occurred within a month or so.

Columbia University sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas combed through scientist’s biographies, correspondence and notebooks to collect all the parallel discoveries and invention they could find between 1420 and 1901. They write, “The steamboat is claimed as the ‘exclusive’ discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington. At least six different men, Davidson, Jacobi, Lilly, Davenport, Page and Hall, claim to have made independently the application of electricity to the railroad. Given the railroad and electric motors, is not the electric railroad inevitable?”

The prevalence of ubiquitous simultaneous, independent, and equivalent discovery suggests so. If the direction of technological progress is inevitable, one new invention preparing the ground for the next, then individual human discoverers and inventors are replaceable conduits, and their individual success a matter of luck to some degree.

psychologist Dean Simonton took Ogburn and Thomas’ catalog of simultaneous invention before 1900 and aggregated it with several other similar lists to map out the pattern of parallel discovery for 1,546 cases. Simonton plotted the number of discoveries found by 2 individuals compared to the number of discoveries found by 3 people, or 4 people, or 5, or 6 co-finders. The number of 6-person discoveries were of course fewer, but the exact ratio between these multiples produced a pattern known in statistics as a Poisson distribution. This is the pattern of events you see in mutations on a DNA chromosome, and other rare chance events in a large pool of possible agents. The Poisson curve suggested that the system of “who found what” was essentially random.

Synchronicity is not just a phenomenon of the past, when communication was poor, but very much part of the present. Scientists at AT&T Bell Labs won a Nobel prize for inventing the transistor in 1948, but two German physicists independently invented a transistor two months later at a Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris.  Conventional wisdom credits John von Neumann with the invention of a programmable binary computer during the last years of World War II, but the idea and a working punched-tape prototype were developed quite separately in Germany a few years earlier in 1941 by Konrad Zuse. In a verifiable case of modern parallelism,  Zuse’s pioneering binary computer in wartime Germany went completely unnoticed by the US and UK until many decades later.

The strict wartime secrecy surrounding nuclear reactors during World War II created a model laboratory for retrospectively illuminating technological inevitability. Independent teams of nuclear scientists around the world raced against each other to harness atomic energy. Because of the obvious strategic military advantage of this power, the teams were isolated as enemies, or kept ignorant as wary allies, or separated by “need to know” secrecy within the same country. In other words, the history of discovery ran in parallel. Each discrete team’s highly collaborative work was well documented, and progressed through multiple stages of technological development. Looking back researchers can trace parallel paths as the same discoveries were made. In particular, physicist Spenser Weart examined how six of these teams each independently discovered an essential formula for making a nuclear bomb. This equation, called the four-factor formula, allows engineers to calculate the critical mass necessary for a chain reaction. Working in parallel, but in isolation, the formula was simultaneously discovered in France, Germany, the Soviet Union and three teams in the United States. Japan came close but never quite reached it. This high degree of simultaneity — six simultaneous inventions — strongly suggests the formula was inevitable at this time.

Both Newton and Leibnitz are credited with inventing (or discovering) calculus, but in fact their figuring methods differed, and the two approaches were only harmonized over time.  Priestly’s method of generating oxygen differed from Scheele’s; using different logic they uncovered the same inevitable next stage. The two astronomers who both correctly predicted the existence of Neptune (Adams and Leverrier) actually calculated different orbits for the planet. The two orbits just happen to coincide to the same point in 1846, so they found the same body by different means.

But aren’t these kinds of anecdotes mere statistical coincidences? Compared to the hundred thousand of thousands of inventions in the annals of discovery we should expect a few to happen at once, yes? The problem is most multiples are unreported. Sociologist Robert Merton says “all singleton discoveries are imminent multiples.” Many potential multiples are aborted.  In 1974 sociologist Warren Hagstrom surveyed 1,718 US academic research scientists, and asked them if their research had ever been anticipated by others. He found that 46% believed that their work had been anticipated “once or twice” and 16% claimed they were preempted three or more times. Jerry Gaston, another sociologist, surveyed 203 high energy physicists in the UK, and got similar results: 38% claimed to be anticipated once, and another 26% more than once.

Patent law scholar Mark Lemley states that in patent law “a large percent of priority disputes involve near-simultaneous invention.”  One study of these near-simultaneous priority disputes by Adam Jaffe, at Brandeis University, showed that in 45% of the cases both parties could prove they had a “working model” of the invention within 6 months of each other, and in 70% of the cases within a year of each other. Jaffe writes “These results provide some support for the idea that simultaneous or near-simultaneous invention is a regular feature of innovation.”

Quite a few scientists and inventors, and many outside of science, are repulsed by the idea that the progress of technology is inevitable. It rubs them the wrong way because it contradicts a deeply and widely held belief that human choice is central to our humanity, and essential to a sustainable civilization. Admitting to “inevitable” anything feels like a cop-out, a surrender to invisible non-human forces beyond our reach. Such a false notion may lull us into abdicating our responsibility for shaping our own destiny. On the other hand, if technologies really are inevitable then we have only the illusion of choice, and we should smash all technologies to be free of this spell.

Hollywood movies have an unnerving habit of arriving in pairs: two movies that arrive in theaters simultaneously featuring a apocalyptic hit by asteroids (Deep Impact and Armageddon), or starring the hero as an ant (A Bug’s Life and Antz), or a harden cop and his reluctant dog counterpart (K9 and Turner & Hooch), or profiling the Zodiac serial killer? Is this similarity due to simultaneous genius or to greedy theft? One of the few reliable laws in the studio and publishing businesses is that a successful movie or novel will be immediately sued by someone who claims the winner stole their idea. Sometimes it was stolen, but just as many times two authors, two singers, two directors came up with similar works at the same time. Mark Dunn, a library clerk, wrote a play, “Frank’s Life,” that was performed in 1992 in a small theater in New York City. “Frank’s Life” is about a guy who was unaware his life was a reality TV program. In his suit against the producers of the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Dunn lists 149 similarities between his story and theirs — which is a movie about a guy who is unaware his life is a reality TV program. However The Truman Show producers claim they have a copyrighted dated script of the movie from 1991, a year before “Frank’s Life” was staged. It is not too hard to believe that the idea of a movie about an unwitting reality TV hero was inevitable.

Writing in The New Yorker, Tad Friend tackled the issue of synchronistic cinematic expression by suggesting that “the giddiest aspect of copyright suits is how often the studios try to prove that their story was so derivative that they couldn’t have stolen it from only one source.”

Every now and then we believe a work of art must be truly original, not ordained. Its pattern, premise, and message originates with a distinctive human mind and shines as unique as they are. J.K. Rowling, author of the highly imaginative Harry Potter series launched in 1997 successfully rebuffed a law suit by an American author who published a series of children’s books in 1984 about Larry Potter, an orphaned boy wizard wearing glasses surrounded by Muggles. In 1990 Neil Gaiman wrote a comic book about a dark-haired English boy who finds out on his 12th birthday he is a wizard and is given an owl by a magical visitor. Or a 1991 story by Jane Yolen about Henry, a boy who attends a magical school for young wizards and must overthrow an evil wizard. Then there’s The Secret of Platform 13, published in 1994, which features a gateway on a railway platform to a magical underworld.  There many good reasons to believe J.K. Rowling when she claims she read none of these (for instance very few of the Muggle books were printed and almost none were sold; teenage boy comics don’t appeal to a single mom), and many more reasons to accept the fact that these ideas arose in simultaneous spontaneous creation. Multiple invention happens all the time in the arts as well as technology, but no one bothers to catalog similarities until a lot of money or fame is involved.

If stories of boy wizards in magical schools with pet owls entering otherworlds through  railway station platforms are inevitable, there must be true originals whose plots and details could not be anticipated. I thought of the delightfully fantastic novel The Life of Pi, about a boy who is lost at sea in a lifeboat that he shares with a tiger. I was sure that hadn’t been done before! But after doing some research, it had. Twenty years before “Life of Pi”, a Brazilian author had written a story (in Portuguese) about a Jewish zookeeper who crossed the Atlantic in a lifeboat with a panther. Even the most outlandish idea is never alone. Further digging revealed the author of Pi had once read a unenthusiastic review of the Brazilian book, so the far-fetched premise was not independently created. But was the Brazilian’s story copied, or emergent as well?

via The Technium: Progression of the Inevitable.


  1. December 7, 2012 at 8:52 am

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