This wobbly plate story was told by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988):
“…I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble…I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate… And before I knew it…I was ‘playing’…
I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…’ and I show him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it? Hah!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever…’
There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”
Where are we going? To the difference between invention and innovation.
Invention at the Old AT&T
Before its 1984 break-up, the old AT&T was a monopoly with little worry about its bottom line. Preserved and protected by the U.S. government, AT&T provided almost all U.S. telephone service and some mind-boggling invention through its Bell Labs subsidiary. Between 1925 and 1983, Bell Labs developed the first fax machine, the original laser, the solar battery cell, light emitting diodes, the UNIX operating system, digital cell phone technology, and the transistor which led to computer microchips, touchtone phones and hi-def TVs.
You get the picture. Their scientists were paid to think.
Somewhat similarly, the Atlantic tells us that Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is doing some “moonshot” research through its X subsidiary. Run by Astro Teller who reputedly wears rollerblades at work most of the time, X’s mission is to generate farfetched ideas that would solve huge problems.
Examples? Waymo, their self-driving car project, has had some success and their attempt to beam internet signals from helium balloons also could work out. But they are no longer trying to develop inexpensive fuel from sea water.
X has been around since 2010. Most of its projects take years to develop, absorb many dollars, and might never have a return.
Our Bottom Line: Invention and Innovation
We could say that X is engaged in invention and innovation. The invention is the idea stage. The innovation is the practical result.
With Dr. Feynman’s wobbly plates, we had invention. Only then though could we get the breakthrough technology that propels our economy.
My sources and more: H/T to marketplace.org for mentioning the research side of Alphabet. From there, it was a short leap to the similar role played by AT&T before its break-up and to this NY Times column on Alphabet. The best discussion though on Alphabet’s basic research was in the Atlantic. As for Dr. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! was such a good read while the AT&T Bell labs story is here. Finally, if you would like a good definition of basic research, applied research, and development, Rand has it here.