Fundamental Innovation Peaked in 1870 and Why That's a Good Thing

A new report from the Sante Fe Institute explains.

May 2 2015, 11:00am

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Would you believe that society has only become less innovative through the years? Sure, we've managed to come up with things like the internet, spacecraft that can land on distant asteroids, antibiotics to tame once-deadly infections, the ability to harvest electrical power from the Sun, global positioning satellites, powdered alcohol, step-counting apps, wildly hybridized plants and animals, jet aircraft, bullets that can aim themselves, consumer-grade drone aircraft, and so forth, but right about 1870, fundamental innovation peaked and leveled off.

This is according a recent combinatorial analysis of language patterns used and reused within United States patent applications conducted by researchers at the Sante Fe Institute and published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The researchers analyzed patent applications all the way back to 1790 in a process that involved matching technologies to distinct phrases and how often those phrases are repeated in future patent applications. Here, this constitutes technological reuse.

"A new invention consists of technologies, either new or already in use, brought together in a way not previously seen," the Sante Fe researchers, led by complex systems theorist Hyejin Youn, write. "The historical record on this process is extensive. For recent examples consider the incandescent light bulb, which involves the use of electricity, a heated filament, an inert gas and a glass bulb; the laser, which presupposes the ability to construct highly reflective optical cavities, creates light intensification mediums of sufficient purity and supplies light of specific wavelengths; or the polymerase chain reaction, which requires the abilities to finely control thermal cycling (which involves the use of computers) and isolate short DNA fragments (which in turn applies techniques from chemical engineering)."

"The research challenge is to find a way to systematically track the combination of distinct technologies," Youn and her team explain. They achieved this by treating patented innovations as technological "carriers" and using patent office codes to classify the different technologies responsible that add up to a single invention. It's a way of breaking down an invention into discrete quantifiable components—sure, like building blocks. Fortunately, this is how the patent office already treats inventions, as bundles of different component technologies.

New technologies are never created from nothing.

"The technology codes provide a rich data resource for identifying individual technological capabilities, marking the arrival of new technologies and studying the role of technological combinatorics in propelling invention," the Sante Fe group continues. "By examining an empirical record spanning over 200 years of inventive activity, we have been able to identify surprising regularities in the generation of inventive novelty."

The generation of new technologies hit its peak around 1870 after increasing exponentially from the patent system's inception. Since then, about 40 percent of new patents have been refinements of older patents where some fundamental phrase found within the prior patent is left unchanged in the new patent. This percentage has remained more or less constant since then, which is in itself remarkable. While cartoon capitalism teaches us that this is some kind of failing (new things building on old things), the Sante Fe group notes that this is hardly the case.

"New technologies are never created from nothing," Youn and co. write. "They are constructed—put together—from components that previously exist; and in turn, these new technologies offer themselves as possible components—building blocks—for the construction of further new technologies." Innovation didn't flame-out in 1870, it matured.

In other words, invention is driven by clever and new ways of combining existing technologies. And so, finally, the Sante Fe group concludes, "Notwithstanding the very reduced rate at which new technologies are introduced, the generation of novel technological combinations engenders a practically infinite space of technological configurations."