As a technology pioneer at MIT and as the leader of three successful start-ups, Kevin Ashton experienced firsthand the all-consuming challenge of creating something new. Now, in a tour-de-force narrative twenty years in the making, Ashton leads us on a journey through humanity’s greatest creations to uncover the surprising truth behind who creates and how they do it. From the crystallographer’s laboratory where the secrets of DNA were first revealed by a long forgotten woman, to the electromagnetic chamber where the stealth bomber was born on a twenty-five-cent bet, to the Ohio bicycle shop where the Wright brothers set out to “fly a horse,” Ashton showcases the seemingly unremarkable individuals, gradual steps, multiple failures, and countless ordinary and usually uncredited acts that lead to our most astounding breakthroughs.
Creators, he shows, apply in particular ways the everyday, ordinary thinking of which we are all capable, taking thousands of small steps and working in an endless loop of problem and solution. He examines why innovators meet resistance and how they overcome it, why most organizations stifle creative people, and how the most creative organizations work. Drawing on examples from art, science, business, and invention, from Mozart to the Muppets, Archimedes to Apple, Kandinsky to a can of Coke, How to Fly a Horse is a passionate and immensely rewarding exploration of how “new” comes to be.
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Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term “the Internet of Things,” and cofounded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Creating Is Ordinary
1 | Edmond
In the Indian Ocean, fifteen hundred miles east of Africa and four thousand miles west of Australia, lies an island that the Portuguese knew as Santa Apolónia, the British as Bourbon, and the French, for a time, as Île Bonaparte. Today it is called Réunion. A bronze statue stands in Sainte-Suzanne, one of Réunion’s oldest towns. It shows an African boy in 1841, dressed as if for church, in a single-breasted jacket, bow tie, and flat-front pants that gather on the ground. He wears no shoes. He holds out his right hand, not in greeting but with his thumb and fingers coiled against his palm, perhaps about to flip a coin. He is twelve years old, an orphan and a slave, and his name is Edmond.
The world has few statues of Africa’s enslaved children. To understand why Edmond stands here, on this lonely ocean speck, his hand held just so, we must travel west and back, thousands of miles and hundreds of years.
On Mexico’s Gulf Coast, the people of Papantla have dried the fruit of a vinelike orchid and used it as a spice for more millennia than they remember. In 1400, the Aztecs took it as tax and called it “black flower.” In 1519, the Spanish introduced it to Europe and called it “little pod,” or vainilla. In 1703, French botanist Charles Plumier renamed it “vanilla.”
Vanilla is hard to farm. Vanilla orchids are great creeping plants, not at all like the Phalaenopsis flowers we put in our homes. They can live for centuries and grow large, sometimes covering thousands of square feet or climbing five stories high. It has been said that lady’s slippers are the tallest orchids and tigers the most massive, but vanilla dwarfs them both. For thousands of years, its flower was a secret known only to the people who grew it. It is not black, as the Aztecs were led to believe, but a pale tube that blooms once a year and dies in a morning. If a flower is pollinated, it produces a long, green, beanlike capsule that takes nine months to ripen. It must be picked at precisely the right time. Too soon and it will be too small; too late and it will split and spoil. Picked beans are left in the sun for days, until they stop ripening. They do not smell of vanilla yet. That aroma develops during curing: two weeks on wool blankets outdoors each day before being wrapped to sweat each night. Then the beans are dried for four months and finished by hand with straightening and massage. The result is oily black lashes worth their weight in silver or gold.
Vanilla captivated the Europeans. Anne of Austria, daughter of Spain’s King Philip III, drank it in hot chocolate. Queen Elizabeth I of England ate it in puddings. King Henry IV of France made adulterating it a criminal offense punishable by a beating. Thomas Jefferson discovered it in Paris and wrote America’s first recipe for vanilla ice cream.
But no one outside Mexico could make it grow. For three hundred years, vines transported to Europe would not flower. It was only in 1806 that vanilla first bloomed in a London greenhouse and three more decades before a plant in Belgium bore Europe’s first fruit.
The missing ingredient was whatever pollinated the orchid in the wild. The flower in London was a chance occurrence. The fruit in Belgium came from complicated artificial pollination. It was not until late in the nineteenth century that Charles Darwin inferred that a Mexican insect must be vanilla’s pollinator, and not until late in the twentieth century that the insect was identified as a glossy green bee called Euglossa viridissima. Without the pollinator, Europe had a problem. Demand for vanilla was increasing, but Mexico was producing only one or two tons a year. The Europeans needed another source of supply. The Spanish hoped vanilla would thrive in the Philippines. The Dutch planted it in Java. The British sent it to India. All attempts failed.
This is where Edmond enters. He was born in Sainte-Suzanne in 1829. At that time Réunion was called Bourbon. His mother, Mélise, died in childbirth. He did not know his father. Slaves did not have last names—he was simply “Edmond.” When Edmond was a few years old, his owner, Elvire Bellier-Beaumont, gave him to her brother Ferréol in nearby Belle-Vue. Ferréol owned a plantation. Edmond grew up following Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont around the estate, learning about its fruits, vegetables, and flowers, including one of its oddities—a vanilla vine Ferréol had kept alive since 1822.
Like all the vanilla on Réunion, Ferréol’s vine was sterile. French colonists had been trying to grow the plant on the island since 1819. After a few false starts—some orchids were the wrong species, some soon died—they eventually had a hundred live vines. But Réunion saw no more success with vanilla than Europe’s other colonies had. The orchids seldom flowered and never bore fruit.
Then, one morning late in 1841, as the spring of the Southern Hemisphere came to the island, Ferréol took his customary walk with Edmond and was surprised to find two green capsules hanging from the vine. His orchid, barren for twenty years, had fruit. What came next surprised him even more. Twelve-year-old Edmond said he had pollinated the plant himself.
To this day there are people in Réunion who do not believe it. It seems impossible to them that a child, a slave and, above all, an African, could have solved the problem that beat Europe for hundreds of years. They say it was an accident—that he was trying to damage the flowers after an argument with Ferréol or he was busy seducing a girl in the gardens when it happened.
Ferréol did not believe the boy at first. But when more fruit appeared, days later, he asked for a demonstration. Edmond pulled back the lip of a vanilla flower and, using a toothpick-sized piece of bamboo to lift the part that prevents self-fertilization, he gently pinched its pollen-bearing anther and pollen-receiving stigma together. Today the French call this le geste d’Edmond—Edmond’s gesture. Ferréol called the other plantation owners together, and soon Edmond was traveling the island teaching other slaves how to pollinate vanilla orchids. After seven years, Réunion’s annual production was a hundred pounds of dried vanilla pods. After ten years, it was two tons. By the end of the century, it was two hundred tons and had surpassed the output of Mexico.
Ferréol freed Edmond in June 1848, six months before most of Réunion’s other slaves. Edmond was given the last name Albius, the Latin word for “whiter.” Some suspect this was a compliment in racially charged Réunion. Others think it was an insult from the naming registry. Whatever the intention, things went badly. Edmond left the plantation for the city and was imprisoned for theft. Ferréol was unable to prevent the incarceration but succeeded in getting Edmond released after three years instead of five. Edmond died in 1880, at the age of fifty-one. A small story in a Réunion newspaper, Le Moniteur, described it as a “destitute and miserable end.”
Edmond’s innovation spread to Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the huge island to Réunion’s west, Madagascar. Madagascar has a perfect environment for vanilla. By the twentieth century, it was producing most of the world’s vanilla, with a crop that in some years was worth more than $100 million.
The demand for vanilla increased with the supply. Today it is the world’s most popular spice and, after saffron, the second most expensive. It has become an ingredient in thousands of things, some obvious, some not. Over a third of the world’s ice cream is Jefferson’s original flavor, vanilla. Vanilla is the principal flavoring in Coke, and the Coca-Cola Company is said to be the world’s largest vanilla buyer. The fine fragrances Chanel No. 5, Opium, and Angel use the world’s most expensive vanilla, worth $10,000 a pound. Most chocolate contains vanilla. So do many cleaning products, beauty products, and candles. In 1841, on the day of Edmond’s demonstration to Ferréol, the world produced fewer than two thousand vanilla beans, all in Mexico, all the result of pollination by bees. On the same day in 2010, the world produced more than five million vanilla beans, in countries including Indonesia, China, and Kenya, almost all of them—including the ones grown in Mexico—the result of le geste d’Edmond.
2 | Counting Creators
What is unusual about Edmond’s story is not that a young slave created something important but that he got the credit for it. Ferréol worked hard to ensure that Edmond was remembered. He told Réunion’s plantation owners that it was Edmond who first pollinated vanilla. He lobbied on Edmond’s behalf, saying, “This young negro deserves recognition from this country. It owes him a debt, for starting up a new industry with a fabulous product.” When Jean Michel Claude Richard, director of Réunion’s botanical gardens, said he had developed the technique and shown it to Edmond, Ferréol intervened. “Through old age, faulty memory or some other cause,” he wrote, “Mr. Richard now imagines that he himself discovered the secret of how to pollinate vanilla, and imagines that he taught the technique to the person who discovered it! Let us leave him to his fantasies.” Without Ferréol’s great effort, the truth would have been lost.
In most cases, the truth has been lost. We do not know, for example, who first realized that the fruit of an orchid could be cured until it tastes good. Vanilla is an innovation inherited from people long forgotten. This is not exceptional; it is normal. Most of our world is made of innovations inherited from people long forgotten—not people who were rare but people who were common.
Before the Renaissance, concepts like authorship, inventorship, or claiming credit barely existed. Until the early fifteenth century, “author” meant “father,” from the Latin word for “master,” auctor. Auctor-ship implied authority, something that, in most of the world, had been the divine right of kings and religious leaders since Gilgamesh ruled Uruk four thousand years earlier. It was not to be shared with mere mortals. An “inventor,” from invenire, “find,” was a discoverer, not a creator, until the 1550s. “Credit,” from credo, “trust,” did not mean “acknowledgment” until the late sixteenth century.
This is one reason we know so little about who made what before the late 1300s. It is not that no records were made—writing has been around for millennia. Nor is it that there was no creation—everything we use today has roots stretching back to the beginning of humanity. The problem is that, until the Renaissance, people who created things didn’t matter much. The idea that at least some people who create things should be recognized was a big step forward. It is why we know that Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Germany in 1440 but not who invented windmills in England in 1185, and that Giunta Pisano painted the crucifix in Bologna’s Basilica of San Domenico in 1250 but not who made the mosaic of Saint Demetrios in Kiev’s Golden-Domed Monastery in 1110.
There are exceptions. We know the names of hundreds of ancient Greek philosophers, from Acrion to Zeno, as well as a few Greek engineers of the same period, such as Eupalinos, Philo, and Ctesibius. We also know of a number of Chinese artists from around 400 c.e. onward, including the calligrapher Wei Shuo and her student Wang Xizhi. But the general principle holds. Broadly speaking, our knowledge of who created what started around the middle of the thirteenth century, increased during the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, and has kept increasing ever since. The reasons for the change are complicated and the subject of debate among historians—they include power struggles within the churches of Europe, the rise of science, and the rediscovery of ancient philosophy—but there is little doubt that most creators started getting credit for their creations only after the year 1200.
One way this happened was through patents, which give credit within rigorous constraints. The first patents were issued in Italy in the fifteenth century, in Britain and the United States in the seventeenth century, and in France in the eighteenth century. The modern U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted its first patent on July 31, 1790. It granted its eight millionth patent on August 16, 2011. The patent office does not keep records of how many different people have been granted patents, but economist Manuel Trajtenberg developed a way of working it out. He analyzed names phonetically and compared matches with zip codes, coinventors, and other information to identify each unique inventor. Trajtenberg’s data suggests that more than six million distinct individuals had received U.S. patents by the end of 2011.
The inventors are not distributed evenly across the years. Their numbers are increasing. The first million inventors took 130 years to get their patents, the second million 35 years, the third million 22 years, the fourth million 17 years, the fifth million 10 years, and the sixth million inventors took 8 years. Even with foreign inventors removed and adjustments for population increase, the trend is unmistakable. In 1800, about one in every 175,000 Americans was granted a first patent. In 2000, one in every 4,000 Americans received one.
Not all creations get a patent. Books, songs, plays, movies, and other works of art are protected by copyright instead, which in the United States is managed by the Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress. Copyrights show the same growth as patents. In 1870, 5,600 works were registered for copyright. In 1886, the number grew to more than 31,000, and Ainsworth Spofford, the librarian of Congress, had to plead for more space. “Again it becomes necessary to refer to the difficulty and embarrassment of prosecuting the annual enumeration of the books and pamphlets recently completed,” he wrote in a report to Congress. “Each year and each month adds to the painfully overcrowded condition of the collections, and although many rooms have been filled with the overflow from the main Library, the difficulty of handling so large an accumulation of unshelved books is constantly growing.” This became a refrain. In 1946, register of copyrights Sam Bass Warner reported that “the number of registrations of copyright claims rose to 202,144 the greatest number in the history of the Copyright Office, and a number so far beyond the capacities of the existing staff that Congress, responding to the need, generously provided for additional personnel.” In 1991, copyright registrations reached a peak of more than 600,000. As with patents, the increase exceeded population growth. In 1870, there was 1 copyright registration for every 7,000 U.S. citizens. In 1991, there was one copyright registration for every 400 U.S. citizens.
More credit is given for creation in science, too. The Science Citation Index tracks the world’s leading peer-reviewed journals in science and technology. For 1955, the index lists 125,000 new scientific papers—about 1 for every 1,350 U.S. citizens. For 2005, it lists more than 1,250,000 scientific papers—one for every 250 U.S. citizens.
Patents, copyrights, and peer-reviewed papers are imperfect proxies. Their growth is driven by money...
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