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Necessity Is Not The Mother Of Invention
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
This lack of balanced understanding accounts in part for the widely held view that our technology is merely “applied science” and that scientists can recall or devise formulas from whatever sciences might be involved to produce any sort of technology or machine. In fact, no machine can be produced “scientifically”—or by stringing formulas together. Every machine and every technology has to be “designed” in a process of spatial thinking just like that used by Fulton and Morse. And every design represents an almost aesthetic judgment on which “fit” is best. There is no single determinate way to design a machine.
Another striking parallel between Fulton and Morse and some modem inventors is the manner in which all have been captured by their mental images of new devices—images that came to them before they figured out how to use them. The thinkers who conceived the laser produced the device with but dim ideas about its applications. Theodore H. Maiman, inventor of the ruby laser, remarked, “It is a solution in search of a problem.” Like Fulton and Morse, he had not searched to solve a social need but had been dominated by his own three-dimensional visions.
The simpler, more understandable technology of the early nineteenth century can give us critical insight into fundamental continuities with the sometimes baffling, formula-ridden technologies of the present. Then as now, everything depended on the mental manipulation of complex spatial images with multidimensional components. Then as now, the required inventiveness and ingenuity was often fueled more by those technological visions than by any problem that needed solving. The solution can come first, and it invariably comes in mental images.