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Necessity Is Not The Mother Of Invention

December 2021
4min read

TWO GREAT nineteenth-century inventions can teach us some surprising things about the kind of creative thought that goes into major technological change.

Both the steamboat and the electromagnetic telegraph were truly something new under the sun; and while every invention has many parents, Robert Fulton emerges as the designer of the boat that signaled the beginning of the age of engine-powered transportation. And Samuel F. B. Morse was clearly the leading contriver of the form of telegraph that came to dominate the non-British world.

It turns out to be no mere coincidence that both men were trained artists who had expected to make painting their lifework.

And Fulton and Morse were not the only artists of that era who demonstrated unusual mechanical ingenuity and inventiveness. Some helped develop the steamboat. John Fitch was perhaps the most inventive, and he had been a successful silversmith and map engraver. Two other contributors to steamboat technology, Benjamin Henry Latrobe and William Thornton, were known primarily for their architecture— itself a fusion of art and technology. Charles Willson Peale, best known as a painter, invented several mechanical devices and patented a stove and a bridge. Joshua Shaw, another painter, moved to England, where he became known for his inventions of gunlocks and percussion cartridges. Rufus Porter, the celebrated folk landscapist and muralist, had several patents to his credit and launched the most influential magazine of invention at the time: Scientific American .

If the relationship between art and technology is not accidental, it must be explained. It is not merely that training in painting is a good route to achieving innovative work in technology. Something more fundamental is involved, something underlying creativity in both fields.

Perhaps the concept of design—the relation of things in space—gets closest to the heart of the matter. Design is understood to be central in painting and sculpture, but it is equally important in technology. In more recent times engineers have seen that the ability to design runs through all the diverse fields of engineering. In fact, professional societies usually certify engineers as “qualified to design.”

It is no surprise that Samuel F. B. Morse made so much of design. Founding member and first president of the National Academy of Design, he was also the first professor of art in the country, with a self-bestowed title: professor of the literature of the arts of design. He explained that he did not use the term fine arts because he meant to include only “painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving”—all arts concerned with spatial design. He excluded arts that have chronological, sequential aspects: “poetry, music, landscape gardening, and the histrionic arts.” “Painting and her sister arts of design,” he specifically asserted, belong “in the train of the useful arts” and, in fact, are “their avant couriers.” Thus he believed that painting and the mechanical arts were distinctly related.

He saw that design in both art and technology was concerned with “ form displayed in space .” Success in such design depended upon the mental manipulation and recombination of multiple images. This kind of thinking was different from logical analysis, cause and effect, or any other linear ordering of data.

Robert Fulton understood this too. “The mechanic,” he wrote, “should sit down among levers, screws, wedges, wheels, etc., like a poet among the letters of the alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of his thoughts, in which a new arrangement transmits a new Idea to the world.”

It was a matter of visual or spatial thinking. Paintings and machines both had to be conceived and modified by manipulating images of their components in the mind. All those who worked with machines understood this. Morse, for example, wrote his great instrument designer, Alfred Vail, “I long to see the machine … you have been maturing in the Studio of your brain.”

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL BASIS for these two very distinct modes of thinking has been understood only very recently, as a result of studies of the brain that followed directly from experiments begun in the 1960s, for which the neurophysiologist Roger W. Sperry received a Nobel Prize in 1981.

Spatial thinking, it turns out, takes place primarily in the right hemisphere of the brain. There, information is processed which permits us to recognize faces and to orient objects in space. The left hemisphere is the main seat of verbal, arithmetic, analytical, sequential thought. Of course, the brain is integrated, with instantaneous communication between the two hemispheres.

This striking demonstration of two distinct modes of thought has deep meaning for interpreting the historical record. Civilized man, in his educational process, has long overemphasized the verbal, arithmetic, analytical, sequential mode of thought—from the three Rs to the Ph.D. The other mode of thought—spatial, relational, and holistic—which is dominant in art and in mechanical technology, has, all along, received insufficient attention.

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.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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