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

Nicholson Baker, Nicholas Carr, and Googling Clothespins

Nicholas Carr might argue I got stupider this week, and I admit that I did spend more time than usual on Google. Carr’s influential Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July, 2008), has been picked up by the English teaching gaggle to promote reading. I’m going to save that argument for another time and place. One of the first to use Carr’s article, I did not use it to promote reading, but to discuss the elements of argument; for now, I want to explain why I spent more time than usual on Google this week, and show what I found. The first is easy to explain; I discovered Google Patents. The second is easy to show – clothespins. Here’s what happened.

I came across one of my old Joseph Mitchell tri-folded reporter note sheets and realized I had never followed up on a note I had made to research a section in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a novel about a procrastinating poet, whose ruminations, while stalling to write an introduction to a new poetry anthology he’s put together and found a publisher for, produce, in the end, the introduction itself. My note was to research something I found interesting on page 116 of Baker’s novel. Baker’s poet, Paul Chowder, staggers into a discussion of clothespins, and makes this claim: “There was a factory in Vanceborough, Maine, that made eight hundred clothespins a minute in 1883.”

I boarded Google but failed to find the factory. Growing stupider by the minute, I looked up clothespins in Wiki, where a claim is made that the Shakers invented the clothespin, but they didn’t patent their inventions. Patented or not, it would seem that the clothespin, technologically an extension (as McLuhan might explain) of the human finger and thumb clamp, must surely predate the Shakers.

The paperclip might be an evolutionary relative of the clothespin, as shown by my research in Google patents. To the left, is a drawing of a patent by A. W. Burch, dated July 2, 1907. The pin is made of wire, and appears to have been inspired by the paperclip.

Many patents seek to improve upon ideas already patented and manufactured; for example, Roy V. Shackelford, of Long Beach, California, was granted a patent in 1939 for a clothespin that “attached to a line in such a manner that the clothes which are fastened in the pin never come in actual contact with the clothes line.”

Sarah J. Miley, in 1898, wrote a patent that discouraged traditional one piece bifurcated wood clothespins from splitting in half, through the addition of a metal  “stay plate” in the handle end (drawing left).

It might have been a stupid week, but I will never look at a clothespin the same again, nor a paperclip, for that matter, nor the possibilities for the extensions of the human for inventions that we call technology.

As for Nicholson Baker’s factory, how many clothespins do we need? The answer to that might be found in A. R. Stewart’s invention (drawing below), patented in 1874. It’s not a clothespin; it’s a machine to make clothespins. The Shakers didn’t need to patent their clothespin because they had no intention of mass producing and marketing it; if they needed another clothespin, they would simply make a new one. Manufacturing, like specialization, leads to extinctions.

Stewart’s patent application, titled “Improvement in Machines for Making Clothes-pins,” does not mention the number of clothespins the machine is capable of producing per minute, but instead describes a machine “capable of forming a perfect clothes-pin at each downward movement of the saw and cutters, and, as the finished pins are removed by the same upon their upward stroke, no other attention is necessary except to supply the blanks to the hopper.” The improvement seems to be found not in the quantity of clothespins produced, but in the saving of labor required to produce them. I thought of Melville’s Bartleby: Ah technology! Ah, humanity!