invention of the starter. Now there's a useful description, one even the least technologically savvy consumer can relate to. Whether from history class or Saturday morning cartoons, who can't summon up the image of a harried driver laboriously winding the crank on a clunky Model T?
Writing in the January 2000 issue of the public policy/philosophy journal The Freeman at the dawn of the new millennium, business professor Edward Younkins looked at the interplay between technological progress and the course of human history:
"If people resisted technological change, they would be expressing their satisfaction with existing levels of disease, hunger, and privation." (To which list we could add "negative environmental impacts.")
He continues: "In addition, without experimentation and change, human existence would be boring; human fulfillment is dependent on novelty, surprise, and creativity. An innovative idea from one man not only contributes to the progress of others, but also creates conditions permitting people to advance even further. Ideas interact in unexpected ways, and innovations are frequently used in unforeseen applications."
History tells us that genuine revolutions in science and technology rarely stem from massive, centrally planned programs. Every schoolkid knows about Thomas Alva Edison's truly revolutionary invention of the light bulb. (In reality, of course, he invented the first commercially viable light bulb.) Although Edison was no Doc Brown toiling in an obscure garage-turned-laboratory, his groundbreaking Menlo Park research center (since removed to The Henry Ford museum and complex in Dearborn, Michigan) was a modest private enterprise, funded by the sale of his quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for $10,000.
Before Edison's light bulb, people used candles and kerosene lamps, heating stoves and fireplaces to see in the dark--all lit by fire. It should come as no surprise then that a survey of historians and other academics at the turn of the 19th century named the humble matchstick--not the glamorous electric light bulb--as one of the 10 most significant inventions of the preceding 100 years.
Imagine today trying to light a campfire, grill, cigar, or candle without an actual match. Boy Scouts aside, we'd literally be sitting in the dark.
As for the auto industry, the innovation of the starter was nothing compared to the invention of the horseless carriage. The definition of what is revolutionary--or iconic, or world-class, or... insert your own overused superlative here--requires historical perspective and context.
Is the 2011 Chevy Volt as revolutionary today as the horseless carriage was two centuries ago? No. It is, after all, still a mode of transportation featuring four tires and a manually operated steering wheel--not a hovercraft.
Yet as Younkins wrote, "Ideas interact in unexpected ways." The very fact that discussions of this new car have become so heated suggest that technology still has the old magic: Progress is not only possible, it is good. Who can say what unforeseen applications of the Volt's technology we shall be celebrating in a few years, or a few decades? Perhaps what is truly revolutionary is the belief that American Ingenuity is not dead.
Edison's admonition to fellow business owners to "Have faith! Go forward!" is often quoted and would certainly be appropriate here. Even more fitting for a discussion of a new kind of vehicle coming to market are these words that reveal the more pragmatic side of the Wizard of Menlo Park: "Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success."
The anti-car crowd would have us believe that the only choice for a clean planet is less personal freedom. Regardless of its long-term utility and sales success, the Volt is a symbol that it doesn't have to be that way.
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