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Howes: Innovation is the Exception, Not The Rule

Historian Anton Howes provides an excellent example in his post Where Be Dragons of John Kay’s Flying Shuttle:

A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733” [1], was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. [….] Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”).

Let Bennet Woodcroft’s words sink in for a minute.

For five thousand plus years, millions of skilled people have been weaving and no one — that we know of (and if they did they did not pass it on) [2] — had thought of this simple, inexpensive, easily constructed improvement.

In another article, Is Innovation in Human Nature? Howes again illustrates the simplicity of the Flying Shuttle:

Kay’s innovation was to use two wooden boxes on either side to catch the shuttle. And he attached a string, with a little handle called a picker, so that the shuttle could be jerked across the loom, at great speed. Here’s a video of it in action.

All Kay added was some wood and some string. And he applied it to weaving wool, which had been England’s main industry since the middle ages. He had no special skill, he required no special understanding of science for it, and he faced no special incentive to do it. As for institutions, the flying shuttle was technically illegal because it saved labour, the patent was immediately pirated by competitors to little avail, and Kay was forced to move to France, hounded out of the country by angry weavers who threatened his property and even his life. Kay faced no special incentives — he even innovated despite some formidable social and legal barriers.

(Hank Rearden anyone?)

Howes calls such innovations “low-hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking for centuries.”

So what is the fundamental cause of innovation? According to Howes, it requires an improving mentality:

So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently.

Let me end with Howes quote of agricultural innovator Arthur Young who said that:

…the natural state is not innovation, but “that dronish, sleepy, and stupid indifference, that lazy negligence, which enchains men in the exact paths of their forefathers, without enquiry, without thought”.


[1] Bennet Woodcroft, “Brief Biographies of Inventors of Machines For The Manufacture of Textile Fabrics” (1863) Chapter 1, page 2.
[2] Whether it is a causal factor in a particular innovation or not, a society that has a culture that better enables the passing on of such innovations is superior to one that does not.

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