Necessity Is Not The Mother Of Invention

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.

SCIENCE ITSELF has attained its great power by little-recognized processes that combine spatial with verbal, arithmetic, logical thinking. The higher mathematics upon which science so heavily relies has been specifically constructed by combining spatial with verbal, arithmetic, logical thinking. As science has become integrated into technology, the spatial thinkers who design new technologies increasingly turn out to be scientists or engineers who are close to the frontiers of science. Although present-day inventors are less likely to be artists than in the early nineteenth century, they necessarily have fine abilities in spatial thinking. One index of the continuing and even resurgent necessity for spatial thinking is the manner in which the computer is increasingly used, especially in science and technology. A recent analysis concludes that “computer graphics … is on its way to becoming the preferred interface between humans and computers”—in contrast to verbal, typed, punch-card input. “Computer graphics” is shorthand for a design technique that permits an engineer or draftsman to place an image conceived in his mind on a computer screen and to alter the image at will. In this way spatial thinking can be programmed directly into the computer.

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.