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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Discussion Topic

Edison's phonograph challenges the theory of "necessity as the mother of invention."

Summary:

Edison's phonograph challenges the theory of "necessity as the mother of invention" because it was not created out of a pressing need. Rather, it was a product of Edison's curiosity and experimentation. This invention demonstrates that innovation can arise from exploration and creativity, not just from necessity.

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How does Edison's phonograph disprove "necessity as the mother of invention"?

Shortly after inventing the phonograph, Edison wrote an article in which he described the potential uses of his invention. These uses included, according to Diamond:

recording the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison's list of priorities...

Edison was frustrated, because the phonograph was not marketable in any of these uses. In fact, he was opposed to its use as a music playback device, and it was other forward-thinking businessmen who decided to put it to that use. 

Diamond uses this story, along with that of Nikolaus Otto, who invented the gas engine, and James Watt, who developed the steam engine (from Thomas Newcomen's design) to pump water out of mines, to show that the relationship between necessity and invention can often be reversed. It was not need that led Edison to create the phonograph. Indeed, he didn't anticipate what uses it would be have. It also tends to downplay, he argues, the role of the "heroic genius" in advancing society's technological development. 

Source: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel:The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 243-244.

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How does Edison's phonograph disprove "necessity as the mother of invention"?

The answer to this can be found in Chapter 13 of the book, beginning on page 243 in the paperback edition. 

Diamond says that most people believe that necessity is the mother of invention.  They say that inventors see needs and invent devices to fill those needs.  Thus, invention becomes a virtuous and even heroic act and societies that have many inventors are seen as superior to those without.

But Diamond argues that Edison’s example (and many others) disproves this view of inventions.  He says that Edison published a list of ten uses for the phonograph.  He did not put music high on that list.  He said that he did not think it had any commercial value.  Clearly, he did not invent it for the purpose to which it was most commonly put.  Diamond says that

Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music.

This is important to Diamond’s argument because it helps disprove the idea that societies with inventors are superior to those without them.  Diamond argues that societies with more people and a longer history of being sedentary are more likely to invent things.  It is numbers and time, not cultural “fitness” that makes inventors arise.

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How does Edison's phonograph challenge the theory of "necessity as the mother of invention"?

In my book, this can be found on pages 242 and 243.  Look there for more details.

The basic idea, however, is that Edison's invention was not intended for the use that it became most famous for.  If necessity were the mother of invention, Edison would have seen this need and then would have invented something to fill it.

This use, of course, is the ability to record and play back music -- that is what records were used for.  But this is not something that Edison had in mind.  There are many other uses that he thought the phonograph would be for, that wasn't one of them.

So the point is that inventions don't come about in response to a perceived need.  Instead, something gets invented for whatever reason and people find ways to use it.

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