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How Innovation Works

And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

By Matt Ridley
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley

How Innovation Works (2020) presents a provocative view of history in which innovation takes center stage. This detailed account of human ingenuity explains how innovation happens and why it is important.

Key idea 1 of 10

Innovation is a complex, messy, and collective process.

The Industrial Revolution – the giant leap in productivity that kicked off the modern era – began when humans first harnessed the power of steam to automate work. To do this, they used a new machine called the atmospheric steam engine. So, who do we thank for this astounding achievement? A man named Denis Papin.

Or, wait, maybe we should thank Thomas Savery. Or, hold on, maybe a fellow called Thomas Newcomen deserves our praise? The truth is, all three men deserve some credit, but none of them can claim all of it. 

That’s because, around 1700, Papin, Savery, and Newcomen all produced their own working models of the atmospheric engine. To this day, it’s unclear who was truly first or how much each inventor influenced the others. 

The key message here is: Innovation is a complex, messy, and collective process.

We often associate a new invention with a single creator. However, that’s an oversimplification of how innovation operates. Even the most creative people don’t work in a vacuum. They’re always influenced by the tools, technologies, ideas, and social structures that surround them. This often means multiple forces contribute to an innovation, even when one person takes the credit.

Let’s consider the case of the atmospheric steam engine. This relatively simple device heats and cools water in a metal cylinder. The changing pressure caused by steam creates movement that can be used for work, like pumping water out of mines. Could Papin, Savery, or Newcomen have invented this completely on their own? 

Not really. The basic ideas behind the device were already hot topics of discussion in scientific circles at the time. Papin and Savery, both educated men, refined their thinking by exchanging letters and papers with other inventors. Moreover, Newcomen, who built the most successful version of the engine, relied on previous advances in blacksmithing technology to complete his machine. Thus, each man’s invention was also a product of their backgrounds and influences.

This principle applies to all innovation. While Thomas Edison gets credit for inventing the light bulb in 1879, the truth is, more than 20 other creators patented similar contraptions in earlier decades. All these thinkers were responding to ideas and technologies circulating at the time. Of course, some of these attempts were better than others, but none of these innovations happened in complete isolation.

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