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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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2.1 Everyday life

Picture an everyday scene. You're in a high street coffee shop. All around you people are drinking coffee. Some people are chatting with friends, others are using their mobile phone. A few individuals seem to be working – consulting their laptop computers, scribbling notes. In a corner of the coffee shop an internet cafe has been set up. At one table a couple of teenagers are laughing at a message in a chat room, while at another table an old chap searches the Web for something.

Now imagine this scene through the eyes of a technologist from 100 years ago. This is someone who has thought carefully about how technology and society might develop during the twentieth century. Putting aside his disappointment at not seeing any flying cars or people wearing silver spacesuits, some aspects of the scene will be familiar. People are still drinking coffee and talking as they did in 1906, although the range of coffees, the variety of accents and languages, and the mix of races and sexes might be surprising.

Surprising too may be the realisation that some of the people here are working in a leisure setting. The technologist had probably imagined that by now the working week would last only a few hours.

Most surprising perhaps will be the technological tools most people seem to be using. The technologist is aware of the telephone, which was invented about 30 years earlier. If he's sufficiently affluent he may have used one – about 7 per cent of households in London had a telephone by the early years of the twentieth century. But most of these twenty-first century people seem to have wireless pocket-size personal communicators they can use to send messages or speak to anyone anywhere in the world.

Some are using a handheld machine that contains thousands of pieces of information that can be accessed instantly, and can do calculations in a fraction of a second that would have taken a team of operators with mechanical calculators hours or even days. And these machines, like the only slightly larger versions in the corner, can be connected to a global brain from which the people can call up almost any information, news, idea, opinion or gossip that exists anywhere on the planet.

How much of this scene would have been predictable 100 years ago? And how many anticipated developments of technology, like flying cars, haven't come about? Well, don't be too hard on the technologist. Some of these technologies weren't even predicted as recently as 25 years ago. As many people have said before, hindsight is the only exact science.

Most of the changes in technology, compared to 100 years ago, are due to the continual inventive activity of a large number of people. At the most basic level many of us at some time or other have felt annoyed at the way some product works or doesn't work. Most of us don't do anything other than maybe form a vague idea about how a product or process might be improved. In some people, however, this inventive drive is so strong that they act on it.