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Why Great Ideas Come In Pairs

Have you ever noticed how similar inventions seems to materialize out of thin air at precisely the same time? Some recent examples include hi-definition DVD players (Blu-ray and HD-DVD in 2002), digital video recorders (VHS and Betamax in 1974), and audio tape recorders (compact cassette and 8-track in 1964). While this may seem like a consequence of our highly connected and hyper-competitive society, it turns out that this phenomenon is nothing new.

Ninety years ago, in 1922, two Columbia University sociologists, William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, published an article entitled "Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution" that examined exactly this point. In the paper, the authors list 148 inventions and scientific discoveries that appeared simultaneously but independently, by at least two inventors. Examples cited include calculus (by Isaac Newton in 1671 and Gottfried Leibniz in 1676), the telephone (by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray in 1876), the telegraph (by four inventors between 1831 and 1837), and natural selection (by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in 1858).

The notion that great ideas simultaneously appear out of thin air is a fascinating proposition. But which cosmic forces need to align in order for several inventors to reach a common understanding at a particular time in history?

One answer is that geniuses emerge at the right time and place. Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist from University of California-Davis, presented this approach in a 1978 Social Studies of Science article entitled "Independent Discovery in Science and Technology: A Closer Look at the Poisson Distribution." In the article, Simonton points to a statistical probability, that every so often a genius will appear who has the unique capability of making a particular discovery. Statistically there is also a likelihood, albeit a smaller one, that more than one genius will appear at the same time, which will lead to a "duplicate" discovery. In other words, natural selection was discovered because Darwin and Wallace were geniuses who just happened to live at the same time. Over long periods of history, statistically speaking, coincidences of this nature will recur periodically.

A variation of this theory says that luck plays a role in discovery. Sometimes, a scientist or inventor hits the jackpot by being in the "right place at the right time." Serendipitous discoveries, of which there are many, fit in this category. Two famous examples include the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1929 and the invention of Scotchgard at 3M in 1952. Going a step further, statistically, two people can get lucky at the same time, just like two people can win the lottery in any given week.

Ogburn and Thomas took a different approach. They suggested that discoveries and inventions must occur when three conditions are fulfilled; there is a defined problem or need, there is a desire to fulfill that need, and there is a "cultural preparedness" (i.e. a technical understanding exists). Once these elements converge, inventions and discoveries become inevitable. As such, discoveries don’t rely upon the appearance of geniuses. For example, Darwin and Wallace both defined the problem of how species develop, they both had an internal drive to explore nature, and they both had the wherewithal to spend years traveling in nature. The unique combination of events provided Darwin and Wallace with the potential to leave their mark on history. But Darwin and Wallace reached the same conclusion at the same time because natural selection became inevitable once the three necessary conditions were fulfilled.

Most recently, Steven Johnson, in his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, enlists biologist Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the "adjacent possible" to explain the duplicate invention phenomenon. The adjacent possible theory says that biological systems have a potential to evolve to a higher order, but only in incremental steps. Johnson adapts this theory to propose that new ideas in general can only evolve in incremental steps from previous ones. While each incremental idea may be small, several small ideas can add up to huge discoveries. Therefore, while ideas may not be entirely deterministic a la Ogburn and Thomas, they don’t necessarily depend on genius either. When the same set of facts is known to several groups working on a problem, there is a likelihood that more than one will make the same discovery at more or less the same time.

On the other hand, some researchers reject the concept of duplicate inventions outright. Tertius Chandler, a UC Berkeley historian, is one example. In 1960, Chandler published an article in American Anthropologist entitled "Duplicate Inventions?" in which he reviewed the 148 inventions enumerated by Ogburn and Thomas. Chandler concluded that in all cases except two, the invention or discovery was made by single individual who predated the credited inventors. Chandler says the originator of the first idea is the real inventor; subsequent developments were just incremental improvements. For example, Chandler notes that both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace made their discoveries of natural selection after reading Malthus’s "An Essay on the Principle of Population"; therefore, Malthus should be credited with the discovery of natural selection.

Where does this leave us? Do duplicate inventions, in fact exist? And if they do, why do they seem to appear in pairs?

Here, I think Johnson is on to something. Ideas do have their unique time in history. When there is a profound interest in solving a problem, more than one person will work on it, and each will have access to the same assortment of knowledge and underlying technology. What develops is a race to make the discovery or create the invention. And in some cases, a race’s "photo finish" produces a duplicate invention. Even in the earlier cases cited by Ogburn and Thomas, there are documented connections between geographically remote actors. For example, it is known that Newton and Leibniz shared a common confidant who passed information between the two contenders. More recent examples of these competitions can be found in books like James Watson’s The Double Helix, which details Watson’s and Crick’s quest to be the first to crack the structure of DNA, and in Brian Cathcart’s The Fly in The Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom, which describes John Cockcroft’s and Ernest Walton’s race to the understand atomic structure. In both cases, competitors reached similar conclusions shortly after the initial announcement of a breakthrough. Can these be considered duplicate inventions?

The implications for how we seek to solve problems at work can be profound. If we understand what it takes to make discovery or create an invention, we should be able to tackle them more efficiently. And on that point, much has been written of late.

What do you think, in the competition for the ownership of a discovery or invention, can there be more than one winner? Email me at or tweet me at @dlavenda.

—Author David Lavenda is a high-tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Image: Flickr user Garuna Bor-Bor]