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The Evolution of Invention & Discovery Speaks Volumes of Modern Prosperity

by: Geoff Ficke

Recently I was ambling around the internet, researching lecture and article topics. I stumbled onto a Wikipedia site that at first seemed quite banal: Timeline of Historic Inventions. This link offered a chronological listing of historic inventions from the Paleolithic period, through the time of Christ, the Dark Ages, Middle- Ages and on to modern times. Perusal of the listing of inventors and their inventions was interesting on several levels.

First was the attribution that could be applied by geography for the specific inventions. Cement in Egypt, rice in India, the Trebuchet in China and hundreds more hugely important inventions could be assigned as having originated in specific ancient lands. Many of these geographic locales are recognizable today, while many others, though identified, have been lost with the passage time and the disappearance of their historical importance.

Second, many of the inventors are identifiable by name, even many of the most ancient ones. Attribution for creation of the encyclopedia is given to Speusippus, the odometer to Archimedes, the kite to Lu Ban, linguistics to Panini, and plastic surgery to Shushruta.

Third, and most interesting, is the sheer volume of inventions, most of great import and use to this day that were created in ancient empires that fell from great heights and lost most remnants of their glory. The mathematics discovered in the Middle East, the medicines and surgeries pioneered on the Indian sub-continent, the vast array of defense and engineering advances created by the Chinese, the foodstuffs, trade routes and tools from Africa are only a small sample of the amazing, wealth generating advances produced by old world societies. And yet, almost inevitably, each of the lands that germinated this amazing creativity evolved into modern times in greatly diminished status.

As you scan the Wikipedia site, “Timeline of Historic Inventions” you begin to see an accelerating scamper of inventiveness from “old world”, eastern centers to the “New World”, western hemisphere. By the Middle Ages creativity has begun to blossom and explode in the west, while the ancient centers of inventiveness for almost 4000 years seem to expire.

The western inventors seem to suddenly breathe a different air. Their technology becomes more commercial, more targeted to mass production and more advanced. The ancients gave us cotton, beer, paper and sails, all useful, important and still in great use. The moderns gave the world machines that revolutionized work and enabled scale and mass production to be levers of new industry and international trade. James Watt, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Guttenberg and Galileo Galilei are but a small group of inventors who revolutionized how societies produced goods, worked, ate, learned and enjoyed leisure (for the first time).

From the 15th century until the present day almost all of the great inventions were produced in the New World west. The formerly robust creativity of the ancient east has expired. The Indian and Chinese economies have rebounded from centuries of torpor to become modern productivity marvels, however, in almost every instance they reproduce product that is designed and invented in the west.

Why has the Middle East become insular, Africa largely a disastrous economic backwater,  Latin America consumed by corruption and poverty and so many other areas of the world beset by poverty and unending misery? Despite the current economic struggles all countries face, does anyone believe that Canada, the United States and the democracies of the European Union will not lead the world in standards of living, prosperity, longevity and freedom for the foreseeable future?

The ability to invent is crucial. However, after crafting an invention, there must be a system in place to allow for commercialization of the invention and the pursuit of reasonable profit to reward the risks undertaken to penetrate markets. This means that rule of law, property rights; protection of intellectual property (patent/trademarks/copyright law) must be codified and enforced.

Capitalism in its various forms is still the greatest generator of wealth and opportunity ever invented. Czarist and communist Russia were full of inventive citizens who were stifled by a system that did not reward innovation. When these people emigrated to the west they created new industries (movies, cosmetics, apparel, technologies, television, etc.) that made them prosperous and benefitted society by providing employment and improving lifestyles.

All over the world there are innovators seeking to escape bondage or states of despair, make their way to the “New World”, and by utilizing our system create new products and industries. We all prosper from this drive to invent. The ancients were inventors of technologies, things of value and usefulness. Unfortunately, they did not reside in places and times where lasting “rules of law” were applicable. Without these basic protections invention, individuals and societies cannot flourish. Not ever!