In the early 1920s, two Columbia University scholars named William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas decided to track down as many multiples as they could find, eventually publishing their survey in an influential essay with the delightful title “Are Inventions Inevitable?” Ogburn and Thomas found 148 instances of independent innovation, most of them occurring within the same decade. Reading the list now, one is struck not just by the sheer number of cases, but how indistinguishable the list is from an unfiltered history of big ideas. Multiples have been invoked to support hazy theories about the “zeitgeist,” but they have a much more grounded explanation. Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally contracts) over time. Some of those parts are conceptual: ways of solving problems, or new definitions of what constitutes a problem in the first place. Some of them are, literally, mechanical parts.
From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books