Say the word “inventor” and most people think of a solitary genius toiling in a basement. But two ambitious new books on the history of innovation—by Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly, both longtime wired contributors—argue that great discoveries typically spring not from individual minds but from the hive mind. In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Johnson draws on seven centuries of scientific and technological progress, from Gutenberg to GPS, to show what sorts of environments nurture ingenuity. He finds that great creative milieus, whether MIT or Los Alamos, New York City or the World Wide Web, are like coral reefs—teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another.
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Despite the “Myth” fostered by Thomas Alva Edison of being the genius inventor, his inventions were done in collaboration with a lot of assistants. The reality has always been that successful inventors had a lot of smart minions to do the tinkering and thinking or collaborated with other like-minded people to come up with new ideas.
One of my favorite people is Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the person who we can thank for taking Tesla’s ideas about three phase alternating current and making them viable. He was one of those Geniuses that fostered thinking and pushed his students and assistants to further their endeavors and discover new principles for themselves. One of the most important things Prof Steinmetz worked on was getting transformers to properly convert voltage without burning up, silicon steel was fundamental in reducing the magnetic hysteresis that ate up a lot of electrical energy and allowed Westinghouse to beat out Edison’s Direct Current Aversion.