On How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson’s brilliantly conceived TV show on modern inventions, every episode underscores the same idea: that innovation comes from adding one concept to another to create something totally new.
I call this ‘plus plus’, which is adding Idea plus Idea.
Add touchscreen technology plus slick design plus a highly developed operating system, and you get the iPad.
Add centuries of using mould to treat infection, plus centuries of war plus centuries of disease, and you get Penicillin.
Add unstable nitroglycerin plus absorbents and stabilisers and you get dynamite.
In the How We Got to Now episode ‘Cold’, Johnson illustrates that man-made ice is only a fairly recent invention. In the mid-19th century, ‘Ice King’ Frederic Tudor transported ice from cold regions in New England to cities as far as Rio. In the same century, inventors around the world (including in Australia) were patenting their ice-making machines for completely different reasons:
-Physician John Gorrie patented an icemaker to cool his Yellow Fever patients, using a refrigerator design pioneered by Oliver Evans.
-Andrew Muhl wanted to service the growing beef industry in Texas.
-Carl von Linde in Germany worked to create year-round production of lager.
-Ferdinand Carré’s gas vapour refrigeration system was used to transport food on ships during intercontinental journeys.
Some of these people profited from their efforts and became famous, while others are unknown. It was up to other inventors to build on and capitalise on their breakthroughs, such as John Gorrie, who died in obscurity.
Each new discovery and approach to refrigeration built on the efforts and breakthroughs of the previous inventor.
Only cumulative effort and insight developed one of our most commonplace inventions we now take for granted.
How might adding ideas lead to your next innovative product?