Problems, Inventions, and Implications

Inventions are usually a response to a problem. A problem is something that limits or impairs access to needs, wants, or values. An invention solves the problem, granting or improving access. An invention might be a machine, an idea, or a new value. Inventions alter our environment and often present side effects, good or bad, that may or may not have anything to do with the original problem, and may or may not have been anticipated. Inventions can create new problems, and changes in our environment can change us, often in unexpected ways, change our response to our environment, change us externally or internally, physically, mentally, or emotionally, change our behavior and the way we think of ourselves. Inventions can change culture and change the direction of societal development. Sometimes, as in the case of synthetic biology, an invention takes on “A Life of Its Own” (Michael Specter, New Yorker, 28 September 2009). This “life of its own” we might call implications. Invention shares with experiment, discovery, and creation what it means to be human.

As machines, inventions have a shelf life, for they are subject to entropy, wear and tear, as well as obsolescence created by changes in the environment or by other inventions. It was Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, talking about the creation of the State (which begins as an idea), who said, “…the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Jowett, V-128, Book II, p. 60). What happens to the old machines when we no longer perceive the necessity? And if inventions are a response to a problem, what problem did the automobile solve?

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented.

According to Google Patents, the oldest patent using the word Automobile was filed in 1809, but not issued until 1902. The patent, by J. Ledwinka, “subject of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary,” but, “residing in Chicago,” was a design allowing for the independent functioning of the four wheels of the carriage. The patent improves the efficiency of the automobile, making it easier to operate. The terms Motor-car and Auto-car will fetch other, equally old patents from Google Patents.

The word “automobile” suggests a self-moving vehicle. A US patent for L. Bollee, of France, providing improvements for a “self-propelling vehicle,” was filed in 1896 and issued in 1898. This patent involves improvements to “…five principal parts: first, the motor; second, the frame; third, the transmission gear; fourth, the brake; and, fifth, the mechanism for engaging and disengaging the motor, for changing the speed of the vehicle, and for actuating the brake.” There’s no mention of a radio or radar detector.

Many of the patents surrounding automobiles suggest that most patents are inventions of improvement. The automobile itself, as an invention, isn’t a new machine as much as an improvement on older machines. The idea of a wheeled vehicle is very old, and may be said to leverage the underlying general principle of the circle, its latent energy (as Fuller’s piano top life preserver illustrates the underlying general principle of flotation, and his magic log illustrates the underlying general principle of the fulcrum, or leverage). Humanity’s first observations of round things rolling, seemingly of their own volition, perhaps needing a kick to get things going, seems to have set off a chain of inventions in what we now call a “snowball effect.” Society seems to be a tower of inventions, not all necessarily designed to improve our humanity.

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented. This is increasingly difficult to do because we may have lost sight of the original problem the automobile was designed to solve, and the automobile has itself created new problems for which it is the invention that appears to be the solution. This is why Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Related:

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

7 Comments Add yours

  1. ruthereno says:

    I love inventions. I have ideas, but need an engineer to help design and money to patent.
    You helped me see the flip side of an invention: when we create an invention to solve a problem or help with a situation, we also create another problem or situation. An inventor needs to be a forward thinker. Whew! Food for thought. Thanks, Joe.

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  2. ruthereno says:

    I have written this several times. Have you received them? Here goes again.
    I love inventions. I have many ideas, but need an engineer to design them and money to patent.
    You have given me a different angle to think about, Joe. When an inventor creates an invention to solve a problem she also creates a new problem or situation. An inventor needs to be a forward thinker and think of all the angles of the invention! Whew. Food for thought. Thanks, Joe.

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hi, Ruth! Thanks for reading and commenting. Just now saw these from you. You should check out Google Patents and read some of the descriptions – very interesting for anyone contemplating invention. And see if anyone is thinking along the same line? Hope all’s well. Joe

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  3. I followed your link to The NY article by Michael Spector, long and very informative. Reading it made me think of Maya Deren, the eperiential filmaker of the 50s, who thought that scientific findings were but the raw materials of ultimate creative action … ‘The first step of creative action is the violation of the ‘natural integrity’ of any original context.’ This in relation to art, its function and its validation in the creation of a ‘mythical reality.’
    Ref: Maya Deren: An anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film 1946.
    http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/deren-2/

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    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks, Ashen. Did not know of Senses of Cinema or Deren. Will read article. The quote you pulled out is certainly interesting – looking at something and seeing something else, the creative action. Joe

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      1. Oh good 🙂 She was very inspiring in her short life.
        If you can connect to yourtube, here is one of her films, Meshes of the Afternoon

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        1. Joe Linker says:

          Thanks, Ashen! I missed this earlier. I watched about 2 minutes of it, but have to go so will come back to it later. Love the sound track so far! And the key falling down the steps. And of course the black and white. And the old record player! More later. Joe

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