The United States’ economic and cultural success depends upon our facility for innovation. We got where we are today by designing new technologies and creating markets for them. (And, making sure people stay free and prosperous so they can buy them.) To keep leading the world economy, we have to deliver more of the same.
Will “American centuries” extend beyond the 20th?
To do that we need clarity of thought and purpose. But, that’s hard to find when we are all swimming in an ever-increasing ocean of electronic devices. Perhaps, a look at the American who started it all will help.
Before he was 36 years old, the life of Samuel F.B. Morse offered no hint that he would change the world more quickly, radically and permanently than anyone before or since. At the time, Morse was preeminent among the United State’s first native-born generation of artists. He was one of a few cultural pioneers who studied and worked in Europe, then returned with the knowledge and skill needed to advance fine art in America.
Motivated by the problem, not the coolness of the gadget
In 1825, Morse was working in Washington on a painting when he learned that his wife was ill at home in Massachusetts. The alert took three days to reach Morse. By the time he returned, she was buried. Morse committed himself to solving the problem of long distance communication. After meeting Charles Thomas Jackson, an expert in electromagnetism in 1832, he set aside painting to focus on inventing a single wire telegraph.
Within five years, Morse applied for his first patent for the telegraph’s hardware and had co-developed the software (Morse code) which is still the “standard for rhythmic transmission of data.” In 1858, the first transatlantic cable reduced the time needed to complete a simple two-way communication (message and response) between the old and new worlds from 20 days to several seconds.
He shrunk the world faster than anyone before or since
In the 175 years since Morse invented the first electronic communication technology, only eight similar breakthroughs have occurred. (See chart) With the possible exception of the World Wide Web, nothing else altered the way we deliver and receive information more profoundly.
Therefore, as today’s public and private sector Pooh-Bahs strut and fret about the future of innovation, Morse’s wildly out-of-the-box career is a relevant road map.
Lessons for the 21st century
- Innovation depends more on broad knowledge and experience than technical expertise. Why didn’t Jackson invent the telegraph? He and others knew more about electromagnetism than Morse. Mechanics and scientists experimented with electricity for years. Complicated, impractical prototypes for telegraphs were common. How and why did a painter make it work? The answer discredits conventional wisdom that America will lose the future unless students learn more math and science. We can’t solve the problem by obsessively identifying aptitudes and driving kids to perfect narrow technical competencies. We make it worse.
Morse became a technologist because he wanted to solve a problem, long distance communication. He did not set out to invent a telegraph. When he identified the right technology, his background enabled him to collaborate with professors, government officials and others needed to refine his solution. Innovators must know about history, logic, philosophy, literature and art, law and civic affairs. People who know about technology do not change the world. People who understand the problems facing humanity do.
- Successful innovator/entrepreneurs are fierce competitors. In 1794, inventor Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, an agricultural technology that also changed the world. As a technology innovator, Whitney was brilliant. As an entrepreneur, he was shortsighted and a step slower than others. People made vast fortunes because of the cotton gin. Despite his fame, Whitney was not one of them. Morse was driven by more than solving the long-distance communications problem. He battled until the end of his life to secure and protect his patents. He traveled around the world to expand telegraph communications and make sure that he was recognized and rewarded as its inventor. He litigated constantly. One of Morse’s many patent infringement lawsuits was decided in his favor by the Supreme Court.
In a recent post in the Sand Hill blog, patent attorney Jeff Shieh wrote that despite “staggering” patenting costs “the biggest hindrance to startups and small companies seeking international patent protection may be knowledge.” Morse’s diverse background (including a belief he did not get the credit he deserved as a painter) prepared him to fight for his intellectual property rights. Unlike Whitney, he died a wealthy man.
- Internationalism is critical and nothing new. Although the telegraph’s long-term impact on the world can be taken for granted, Morse’s ability to spur the rate of adoption (11 years from patent to transatlantic cable) is largely due to his knowledge of Europe and relationships with influential people there. Morse also understood the importance of formal recognition and he pursued it relentlessly. Between 1851 – 58, he received endowments and the highest honors from Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, Turkey, The Holy See, The Netherlands, Sweden and Tuscany.Modern American entrepreneurs eagerly and carelessly jump into overseas markets, only to have their ideas and profits stolen. Morse aggressively approached opportunities while vigilantly guarding his interests.
Do not think the world was simpler and more honest. In 1848, Morse wrote to a friend: “I have been so constantly . . . watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!!”
- The government is always a factor. Morse and his early challengers needed government assistance to prove the commercial viability of the telegraph. Morse alone was successful in getting a $30,000 grant (narrowly approved) from the U.S. Congress in 1843 to build a 38-mile demonstration network. Without the help from Congress, the British multi-line technology — an inferior, convoluted solution — might have gained a market advantage.
Morse also leaned heavily on the U.S. Department of State to assure that his rights were protected in Europe. Once again, Morse’s reputation as a painter, as well as his familiarity with diplomats and elected officials, was critical to the success of HIS technology.
Leaders of innovation must know how to manage complex interrelationships between governments, financial institutions, trade organizations and marketplace forces. Today, too many would-be innovators delegate political and regulatory responsibilities to lawyers and consultants. A leader must be involved everywhere.
- Formulas for innovation have value, but not much. Corporate masters of R&D, venture capitalists and startup gurus have much in common with horse breeders and athletic talent scouts. They assess and nurture assets to back those with the best chance of delivering a high return. It is a numbers game. They try out hundreds of could be prospects to discover the few winners that make it worthwhile. While everyone studies data and consults experts to handicap the field, some depend on innovation formulas to validate their bets. At certain junctures, everyone is a long shot including:
- The computer geek, Bill Gates, who referred IBM executives to a guy in another city when Big Blue first asked him to supply a personal computer operating system. Fate gave Gates a second chance.
- A college dropout, Steve Jobs, who audited calligraphy classes high on acid and later credited that experience for the advent of multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts in computers.
- A classically trained painter, under appreciated in a rough new nation, who became obsessed with destroying limitations on long-distance communication, Samuel F.B. Morse.
Shaking our desire for simple solutions
Human nature impels us toward simple solutions to vexing problems. Plato’s Republic was western civilization’s first utoppian society. In it, the “philosopher king” was the ideal leader who could handle the endemic shortcomings of people and society. He would be strong enough to guide the state, yet also possess the knowledge, fairness, compassion and wisdom only possible from the study of philosophy.
Today, when I read the musings of people searching for answers (for the next digital economy messiah), they seem to regard a mythical “innovator entrepreneur” as the 21st century equivalent of Plato’s “philosopher king.” Those seekers should visualize someone whose background is similar to Samuel Morse, not a 20-something certified genius whose hot website makes it easy for everyone to hang out and buy things.