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  • 04.30.12

Why Great Ideas Come In Pairs

Similar discoveries and inventions often materialize out of thin air at precisely the same time. What cosmic forces need to align for this to happen?

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.

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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.

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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 dlavenda1@hotmail.com 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.

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[Image: Flickr user Garuna Bor-Bor]

About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission.

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