There is nothing in the history of technology in the past century and a half to suggest that infallible methods of invention have been discovered or are, in fact, discoverable. It may be true that in these days the search for new ideas and techniques is pursued with more system, greater energy and, although this is more doubtful, greater economy than formerly. Yet chance still remains an important factor in invention and the intuition, will and obstinacy of individuals spurred on by the desire for knowledge, renown or personal gain the great driving forces in technical progress. As with most other human activities, the monotony and sheer physical labour in research can be relieved by the use of expensive equipment and tasks can thereby be attempted which would otherwise be wholly impossible. But it does not appear that new mysteries will only be solved and new applications of natural forces made possible by ever increasing expenditure. In many fields of knowledge, discovery is still a matter of scouting about on the surface of things where imagination and acute observation, supported only by simple technical aids, are likely to bring rich rewards.
KeywordsDiesel Engine Technical Progress Patent System Specific Invention Individual Inventor
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- 1.At the beginning of the century H. G. Wells advocated the encouragement of a science of prediction as a part of a system for conscious social planning: ‘In the past our kind had been hustled along by change; now it was being given the power to make its own changes’. He himself made many predictions of highly varying accuracy. More recently a group of distinguished sociologists associated with the University of Chicago developed these ideas in some detail. Their views are summarised in the Report of the United States National Resources Committee, Technological Trends and National Policy, 1936. A great deal of the literature on the conservation of natural resources is linked up with the prediction of invention. For the attempts to determine how long certain natural resources will last involve a comparison of the probable future supply (which is affected by the possibility of inventions improving the methods of locating fresh supplies) and the probable future demand (which will be partly determined by inventions leading to the use of substitutes). It is interesting to note that, whereas those writers who wish to predict invention for the purpose of controlling its consequences are usually highly optimistic about the rate of invention, conservationists tend to be pessimistic about the speed with which invention is likely to relieve the pressure upon existing natural resources.Google Scholar
- 2.Up to his death Rutherford believed that the use of nuclear energy on a large scale was unlikely (A. H. Compton, Atomic Quest, p. 279). Robert A. Millikan, ‘There is no appreciable energy available to man through atomic disintegration’ (Science and the New Civilization, 1930, p. 163). Hertz did not think that the wireless waves he had discovered would have any practical application. (W. R. Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation in the Radio Industry, p. 15.) Even Sir Winston Churchill, whose prescience has been as outstanding as his distrust of long—range prediction, said of atomic energy in August 1939: ‘It might be as good as our present—day explosives, but it is unlikely to produce anything very much more dangerous.’ (The Second World War, vol. I, p. 301).Google Scholar
- 1.Thus Mr. Crawford H. Greenewalt, the President of du Pont, has said: ‘I dislike making specific prophecies … in the first place they are much more likely to be wrong than right. Second, they are almost always more pessimistic than the actuality. And, finally, spectacular new developments in technology by themselves are unlikely to determine the material progress we will make over the next 25 years.’ (Fortune, May 1955.)Google Scholar
- 1.For example, Mr. S. C. Gilfillan, who has probably made more advanced claims about the possibility of prediction than any other writer, in his book Inventing the Ship, 1935, speaks of the startling invention of the rotorship. He obviously imagined that there was a great future for this type of ship. But nothing has been heard of it since 1935.Google Scholar
- 2.See in particular the classic article by Sir Arnold Plant, ‘Economic Theory concerning Patents’, Economica, Feb. 1934, the reading of which should constitute the departure point for any modem study of the patent system.Google Scholar
- 1.The whole subject is ventilated by Sir Arnold Plant, The Substance and the Shadow, Third Fawley Foundation Lecture, 1956.Google Scholar