“Inventors Are Sometimes Beneficiaries of Their Own Ignorance”

William Rosen gives us a thought-provoking anecdote about Edmund Cartwright, the inventor of the first power loom:

(p. 238) He was also, apparently, convinced of the practicality of such a machine by the success of the “Mechanical Turk,” a supposed chess-playing robot that had mystified all of Europe and which had not yet been revealed as one of the era’s great hoaxes: a hollow figurine concealing a human operator. Inventors are sometimes beneficiaries of their own ignorance.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

“Inventors Fear Wrong Answers Less than Noninventors”

(p. 123) [A] . . . study . . . conducted in 1962, compared the results of psychometric tests given to inventors and noninventors (the former defined by behaviors such as application for or receipt of a patent) in similar professions, such as engineers, chemists, architects, psychologists, and science teachers. Some of the results (p. 124) were about what one might expect: inventors are significantly more thing-oriented than people-oriented, more detail-oriented than holistic. They are also likely to come from poorer families than noninventors in the same professions. . . .
. . . , the 1962 study also revealed that independent inventors scored far lower on general intelligence tests than did research scientists, architects, or even graduate students. There’s less to this than meets the eye: The intelligence test that was given to the subjects subtracted wrong answers from right answers, and though the inventors consistently got as many answers correct as did the research scientists, they answered far more questions, thereby incurring a ton of deductions. While the study was too small a sample to prove that inventors fear wrong answers less than noninventors, it suggested just that. In the words of the study’s authors, “The more inventive an independent inventor is, the more disposed he will be–and this indeed to a marked degree–to try anything that might work.”

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: word in brackets and ellipses added.)

The Psychology of How Power Corrupts

(p. B1) Being in a position of power . . . may make people feel that they can do no wrong. In recent experiments, Dana Carney, a psychologist at Columbia University’s business school, has found that acquiring power makes people more comfortable committing acts they might otherwise be reluctant to commit, like lying or cheating. As people rise to a position of power, she has shown, their bodies generate more testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression and risk-taking, and less cortisol, a chemical that the body generates in response to stress.

“Having power changes you physiologically, reducing your body’s internal feedback that tells you which actions are good or bad,” says Prof. Carney. “Power temporarily intoxicates you.”

For the full commentary, see:
JASON ZWEIG. “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; What Conflict of Interest? How Power Blinds Us to Our Flaws.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 16, 2010): B1.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Invention Aided By the Intelligent Hand and Spatial Intelligence

(p. 36) For centuries, certainly ever since Immanuel Kant called the hand the window on the mind,” philosophers have been pondering the very complex way in which the human hand is related to the human mind. Modern neuroscience and evolutionary biology have confirmed the existence of what the Scottish physician and theologian Charles Bell called the intelligent hand. Stephen Pinker of Harvard even argues that early humans’ intelligence increased partly because they were equipped with levers of influence on the world. namely the grippers found at the end of their two arms. We now know that the literally incredible amount of sensitivity and articulation of the human hand, which has increased at roughly the same pace as has the complexity of the human brain, is not merely a product of the pressures of natural selection, butt an initiator of it: The hand has led the brain to evolve just as much as the brain has led the hand. The hands of a pianist, or a painter, or a sushi chef, or even, as with Thomas New-(p. 37)comen, hands that could use a hammer to shape soft iron, are truly, in any functional sense, “intelligent.”

This sort of tactile intelligence was not emphasized in A. P. Usher’s theory of invention, the components of which he filtered through the early twentieth-century school of psychology known as Gestalt theory, which was preeminently a theory of visual behavior. The most important precepts of Gestalt theory (to Usher, anyway, who was utterly taken with their explanatory power) are that the patterns we perceive visually appear all at once, rather than by examining components one at a time, and that a principle of parsimony organizes visual perceptions into their simplest form. Or forms; one of the most famous Gestalt images is the one that can look like either a goblet or two facing profiles. Usher’s enthusiasm for Gestalt psychology explains why, despite his unshakable belief in the inventive talents of ordinary individuals, he devotes an entire chapter of his magnum opus to perhaps the most extraordinary individual in the history of invention: Leonardo da Vinci.
Certainly, Leonardo would deserve a large place in any book on the history of mechanical invention, not only because of his fanciful helicopters and submarines. hut for his very real screw cutting engine, needle making machine, centrifugal pumps, and hundreds more. And Usher found Leonardo an extraordinarily useful symbol in marking the transition in mechanics from pure intuition to the application of science and mathematics.
But the real fascination for Usher was Leonardo’s straddling of two worlds of creativity, the artistic and the inventive. No one, before or since, more clearly demonstrated the importance to invention of what we might call “spatial intelligence”; Leonardo was not an abstract thinker of any great achievement, nor were his mathematical skills, which he taught himself late in life, remarkable. (p. 38) His perceptual skills, on the other hand, developed primarily for his painting, were extraordinary, but they were so extraordinary that Usher could write, “It is only with Leonardo that the process of invention is lifted decisively into the field of the imagination. . . . “

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

Life is Too Short to Waste on Hypercomplex Music and Literature

(p. W14) Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand? Fred Lerdahl thinks so, at least as far as his chosen art form is concerned. In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University, published a paper called “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” in which he argued that the hypercomplex music of atonal composers like Messrs. Boulez and Carter betrays “a huge gap between compositional system and cognized result.” He distinguishes between pieces of modern music that are “complex” but intelligible and others that are excessively “complicated”–containing too many “non-redundant events per unit [of] time” for the brain to process. “Much contemporary music,” he says, “pursues complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity.” (To read his paper online, go to: http://www.bussigel.com/lerdahl/pdf/Cognitive%20Constraints%20on%20Compositional%20Systems.pdf)
. . .
Mr. Lerdahl is on to something, and it is applicable to the other arts, too. Can there be any doubt that “Finnegans Wake” is “complicated” in precisely the same way that Mr. Lerdahl has in mind when he says that a piece of hypercomplex music like Mr. Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maĆ®tre” suffers from a “lack of redundancy” that “overwhelms the listener’s processing capacities”?
. . .
“You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence,” H.G. Wells complained to Joyce after reading “Finnegans Wake.” That didn’t faze him. “The demand that I make of my reader,” Joyce said, “is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” To which the obvious retort is: Life’s too short.

For the full commentary, see:
TERRY TEACHOUT. “Too Complicated for Words; Are our brains big enough to untangle modern art?.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 26, 2010): W14.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The research discussed above is:
Lerdahl, Fred. “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems.” Contemporary Music Review 6, no. 2 (1992): 97-121.

“If I Listened to Logical People I Would Never Have Succeeded”

We may never know if Gilder’s optimism about Takahashi’s DRAM initiative was prescient or misguided. Takahashi died of pneumonia at age 60 in 1989, the same year that Gilder’s Mircocosm book was published. (Takahashi’s successor abandoned the DRAM initiative.)

(p. 154) Many experts said it could not be done. DRAMs represent the most demanding feat of mass production in all world commerce. None of the complex procedures is easy to automate. Automation itself, moreover, is no final solution to the problems of dust and contamination. Machines collect and shed particles and toxic wastes nearly as much as people do. Chip experts derided the view that these ten-layered and multiply patterned electronic devices, requiring hundreds of process steps, resembled ball bearings in any significant way.

Takahashi knew all that. But experts had derided almost every decision he had made throughout his career. “Successful people,” he says, “surprise the world by doing things that ordinary logical people (p. 155) think are stupid.” The experts told him he could not compete in America with New Hampshire Ball Bearing. He ended up buying it. The experts and bankers had told him not to build his biggest ball-bearing plants in Singapore and Thailand. Those plants are now the world’s most productive. The experts told him not to buy two major facilities in the United States, full of obsolescent equipment and manned by high-priced workers. But those facilities now dominate the American market for precision ball bearings. Now the experts told him he couldn’t make DRAMs. He knew he could. “If I listened to logical people,” he says, “I would never have succeeded.”


Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

Resilience is Key to Surviving Disasters (and to Successful Entrepreneurship)

I believe that resilience is a key characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. Amanda Ripley has some plausible and useful comments on resilience in the passages quoted below.

(p. 91) Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.    . . .

. . .    A healthy, proactive worldview should logically lead to resilience. But it’s the kind of unsatisfying answer that begs another question. If this worldview leads to resilience, well what leads to the worldview?

(p. 92) The answer is not what we might expect. Resilient people aren’t necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing that they have in abundance is confidence. As we saw in the chapter on fear, confidence—that comes from realistic rehearsal or even laughter—soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people “self-enhancers,” but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.
(Note: ellipses added.)