In 1926 Nikola Tesla made an astonishing prediction. Speaking with Colliers magazine, the inventor foresaw a future1 where people would be able to communicate with each other instantaneously and irrespective of distance. A person would be able to see and hear another individual on the other side of the planet as if they were standing face-to-face. All of this would be made possible through a device that might be small in enough to fit in a man’s vest pocket.
Tesla had effectively imagined a modern smartphone. It was a remarkable conceptual leap, but even an individual as brilliant Nikola Tesla couldn’t begin to design the device he had described. The technologies that would eventually make smartphones a possibility, such as silicon transistors, microchips, and rechargeable batteries, had themselves not yet been invented. Tesla’s idea was so far ahead of its time that it could not be made into a physical reality during his lifetime. The smartphone would be a product of the digital age, first showcased2 by IBM in 1992.
While a brilliant individual such as Tesla can occasionally conceive of an idea that is well ahead of its time, sometimes it seems that an idea’s time has very much come. This can be seen through a curious phenomenon in the history of science and innovation whereby the same invention or idea is being explored more or less simultaneously by two or more individuals.
Great Minds Think Alike!
Alexander Graham Bell is usually remembered as the inventor of the telephone, but there are at least two other serious claimants. One of these, Antonio Meucci, was an inventor from Florence, too impoverished to file a patent. The third contender, Elisha Gray, did apply for a patent but lost out to Bell by a matter of hours.
The question of which of these men was truly the first to invent the telephone is still a matter of some controversy3, and the waters are muddied still further by claims that Bell may have stolen his design. However, this example of simultaneous invention was by no means an isolated incident. The radio, steam engine, electrical telegraph, vacuum tube, jet engine, and a good deal else besides, were all independently invented, usually with the inventors concerned completely unaware that anybody else was following a similar line of thought.
In 1922 William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas published an essay4 in which they identified 148 instances of these simultaneous inventions, or “multiples” as they are also known. With multiples occurring with remarkable frequency throughout history, it seems that some force other than mere chance must be at play. A fascinating explanation, as suggested by Steven Johnson5 in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is that of the ‘adjacent possible’.
One Thing Leads to Anotherf Johnson saw that the theory could be applied just as effectively to scientific progress, and he described it as follows:
“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”
Each invention and discovery opens up the way for new possibilities which had not existed before. To take just one of countless possible examples, the invention of vulcanised rubber (another simultaneous invention), placed the invention of the rubber tyre, amongst other things, within the adjacent possible. Rubber tyres in turn helped to open the way to the invention of bicycles and the motor car. While there are occasional dead ends, such as the insanely dangerous rocket-powered aircraft deployed by Germany during World War Two, successful inventions and discoveries almost invariably bring yet more innovations within the realms of the adjacent possible.
Johnson uses the analogy of exploring a vast building to help explain the concept. Each room within Johnson’s building contains several doors, and each of these doors represents another invention or discovery. As a door is unlocked and walked through, it too will lead into yet another room containing yet more doors and still more possibilities. As new inventions and discoveries open up new realms in the adjacent possible, inventors, engineers, and scientists begin to explore that space. It’s not surprising that they frequently find themselves thinking along similar lines.
The lesson for innovators is that there is no time to lose. No matter how brilliant or original an idea might appear to be, history suggests that the possibility it might just have occurred to somebody else cannot be easily dismissed.