Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Innovation and the Industrial Revolution

I was in the UK last week and toured Coalbrookdale which in many ways was the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Revolution.  This area of England had easy to access coal and iron ore, was near a river and there were numerous skilled craftsmen in the region.  In the late 1600s and into 1700s much of the ground work for industrialization occurred here.  This included replacement of wood with coal, improved and more efficient iron production, primitive railroads, and a number of other innovations.   On a very simple level they ran out of wood for fuel, replaced it with coal, and when the coal mines got deep enough they needed to pump water out of the mines to keep digging and thus an early version of the steam engine was developed.   So, they literally made it up as they went.


At the same time innovations in metallurgy (some derived from beer production) led to early mass production.   As things progressed, people like James Watt made further improvements in the steam engine and water power could then be replaced by high efficiency steam engines and “progress” accelerated further.   Other factors like intellectual property, finance, and even religious dissent play a role in all of this.  For example, religious nonconformists who did not have equal access to traditional economic opportunities drove much of the innovation.  The picture below is of the first iron bridge ever built in 1779 across the river Severn.  The point of all of this is that a number of factors came together in the region over time and none of it was centrally planned “in London”.




Fast forward to what has happened since World War 2 in Silicon Valley you can see some of the same sorts of general trends.  A lot of technology and skill sets that can be mixed, matched and improved to solve problems.  There is also plenty of IP, finance and folks with “nonconformist” world views in Silicon Valley.   The absence of central planning is also notable.  In fact some large companies like Xerox “developed” prototypes of the modern electronic world but did not know what to do with them because they did not fit into an easy to identify business model.  The video below shows the beginning of a presentation given in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart (the inventor of the computer mouse) that essentially describes the modern electronic environment that many of us work and increasingly live in.  Like the innovators of the Industrial Revolustion he had many sources of inspiration for his ideas.


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Take Home Messages?

I am not sure what the take home messages about innovation from Coalbrookdale and Silicon Valley are, but it seems to me that innovation is frequently bottom up and not top down and that the key for individuals and organizations is to recognize it when they see it and then figure out a way to say yes and cultivate it.   The temptation is always to keep doing things the “same old way” and perhaps do them harder, faster or more efficiently vs. differently in a fundamental way.   I think the other message is that crisis and opportunity are flip sides of same coin.  My guess is that the scarcity of wood was a major crisis for some people, but at the same time but also a major opportunity for others.   The question for us all is how to turn our problems into opportunities.


One Response to “Innovation and the Industrial Revolution”

  1. September 28th, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Pat says:

    Jobs are typically bottom up, not top down innovation.
    No one wants to go back to hand milking when automatic milking is available.

    Is it different with technology innovation?

    Capitalism relies upon equal opportunity to innovate, not following the leader into job shredding without alternatives, or there will be no milk!

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