When new TVs or mobile phones sit on store shelves, they seem self-contained. The experience is designed to inspire awe: innovations are placed on shrine-like displays with no signs of their manufacturing; all finished, polished, and gift-wrapped in plastic; waiting to be taken home. But if you look under the cover of any innovation, the magic of self-containment fades. There are subinventions, subproducts, minor-breakthroughs, and parts and components, each with a story of their own. Every wondrous thing is comprised of many other wondrous things.
In The Engines of Our Ingenuity, John Lienhard writes:
The smallest component of any device, something so small as a screw, represents a long train of invention. Somebody conceived of a lever, someone else thought of a ramp, and another person dreamed up a circular staircase. The simple screw thread merges all of those ideas, and it followed all of them…each part represents a skein of invention, and the whole is a device that we would normally not see in the parts alone.
Mobile phones and DVD players have dozens of screws—not to mention transistors, chips, batteries, and software. Take any of those pieces, divide again, and there's even more innovation hiding inside. It's easy to forget that the innovations we use are comprised of a series of smaller innovations. However, making new things requires taking apart other things and learning from the pieces. Sometimes inventors even work ...