Because of small inventions, we’ve wound up with large buildings…
Like the Shard:
As a result, we can say thank you for the nail.
The Impact of Small Inventions
In a 99% Invisible podcast, a structural engineer selected the seven small inventions that she believed made a huge difference.
In her list, she started with the nail and the wheel. To really understand the nail, we have to go to a forge in ancient Rome where we would see the heat and shaping it required. Also long ago, in Mesopotamia, the first wheel had nothing to do with transport. As a potter’s device, it made vessels that stored food. Then, perhaps two thousand years later, someone reinvented the wheel and attached it to a cart. Dating back to the fourth millennium BCE, the archeological svidence was uncovered as a buried cart in the Russian North Caucasus. (Since then we have indeed been reinventing the wheel.)
Next, we can add the spring and a twisted string. Rather amazingly, we can deform a spring and use its energy to propel something else. It can be as big as a bow and arrow or in a small watch. Much larger, springs are used to absorb unwanted sound in a Denmark concert hall. Similarly, strings seem like nothing until they become the twisted metal that suspend bridges. The basic idea though, takes us back to the Neanderthals.
At this point, our list ends with magnets, the lens, and the pump. Existing naturally, the first magnets were not invented but they served as an innovation springboard for inventions like electricity. Because we use lenses to see and for microscopes, they are in our list. And, at the end, pumps are crucial for getting clean water to us and taking sewage away.
Our Bottom Line: Private and Social Return
Long ago, Edwin Mansfield (1930-1997), a University of Pennsylvania economist, said that a seemingly small innovation can have a large impact. While he was referring to manufacturing inputs like thread, he could easily have been talking about one of our seven little inventions. As Mansfield explained, at first an innovation benefits its developer. But then, from there, some innovations go big.
Rippling across millions of individuals, the social return of a small invention–like a nail–creates the positive externalities that bring benefits to countless individuals.
My sources and more: Happily, I discovered a 99% Invisible podcast that I missed last May. The podcast was about a book that will be published during November 2023 by Roma Agrawal.