In 1916 Henry Ford famously declared, ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.’
Don't Miss: This is How to Find a Nintendo Switch in Stock
What Ford acknowledged in public many innovators have probably thought in private. That history sometimes gets in the way of invention. It holds back development by shackling the present with too many justifications for not doing new things (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it).
The counter view is that history if not the mother of invention is at least it’s maiden aunt. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, ‘those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’. But is the past just a useful academic reference for the issues we face today or can it be more relevant and instructive than that and offer entrepreneurs headlight vision of the future?
From a historical perspective we’re currently in the middle of a third Industrial Revolution, as clearly delineated as its two predecessors. The first revolution, starting in the mid-eighteenth century was essentially a series of mechanical innovations that transformed the scale of the things we could make. The second, starting in the 1840s added the considerable leverage of power and energy to facilitate automation and the great manufacturing boom which followed and lasted well into the 20th century.
The third wave, the information revolution that we’re currently experiencing is now well into its development cycle. By the year 2014 we’re probably already beyond the initial steam and power moment of the last revolution and entering the phase where more people and more companies start to use it to create wealth. Which suggests that the next 20 years might bear more resemblance to the last two decades of the 19th century, when a large swathe of mechanically minded small firms became the manufacturing hubs of the European Empires that extended around the world.
Whilst it is tempting to think of each revolutionary wave as a unique cycle, it is equally clear that they share very similar characteristics. Take the advent of telegraph services in the 19th century and the birth of SMS messaging at the end of the 20th century. The former initially evolved in line with the development of railways as a signaling and controlling system for trains. Yet it wasn’t long before train companies developed their own dedicated systems, leaving the message telegraph to be mainly used for administration and passenger services. Once liberated from the track the telegraph service soon acquired a life of its own and the rest as the say is history.
Ripple dissolve to the last years of the 20th century and we find an equivalent messaging system (SMS) initially exclusively used by the engineers who built the first wave of cellular networks. Just like telegraph messages the migration to consumer services was unintentional and the market that was ultimately created was equally unanticipated.
The same principle applied to even the biggest innovations of the past. In late 19th century Yorkshire there was a popular rhyme “come and see what the Mayor of Harrogate has done, he’s bottled the sun”. The mayor in question, Samson Fox, had built one of the first water gas stations in Britain, which brought street lighting to the good folk of Harrogate and a corresponding glow to his own reputation. Yet as with many entrepreneurs both before and since the story of his success had little to do with his original breakthrough.
Fox had started life as an apprentice maker of boilers, then became a type of traveling salesman, touring the country and building his network of contacts in the shipping and rail industries. Throughout the Industrial Revolution and for the century before, all European countries engaged in study-touring; some, like Sweden and France, even trained civil servants or technicians to undertake it as a matter of state policy.
Fox’s eureka moment was an idea for making boilers vastly more energy productive. In 1877 he lodged a patent for a boiler tube (initially iron, later steel) heated and swaged (rolled) under pressure to form corrugations. This increased the surface area of the tube, allowing more energy to transfer from the fire to the boiler. The corrugations also provided additional strength to resist boiler pressure.
After a slow start with many financial setbacks, Fox eventually introduced his own rolling process which started the commercial success of the furnace. From then on, steamships were routinely fitted with the Fox corrugated furnace on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fox’s story is instructive for many reasons. What he invented wasn’t especially radical, more a reworking of a cog that was already part of the machine. Equally the benefit of his invention depended on others who adopted it to make their own things, like faster ships and trains. Just like today the process of innovation was the fruit of a series of handshakes between complementary products and services that worked collaboratively to achieve bigger effects. And equally like today it wasn’t just what he made but the way that he did it that contributed to his success.
Fox had plenty of role models not just from his own age but also from much earlier times. One was James Watt who went into business with the British manufacturer Mathew Boulton to manufacture steam engines – a partnership that became one of the most important businesses of the Industrial Revolution. Boulton & Watt served as a kind of creative technical center for much of the British economy. They solved technical problems and spread the solutions to other companies. Similar firms did the same thing in other industries and were especially important in the machine tool industry. This type of interaction between companies was important because it reduced the amount of research time and expense that each business had to spend working with its own resources.
In effect the technological advances of the first and second Industrial Revolutions happened more quickly because firms often shared information, which they then could use to create new techniques or products. They also paid attention to the past, preserving lessons and passing them down. Doubtless Ford wouldn’t have approved.