curiosity, the root of invention
By Cyril Stanley Smith (Anvil's ring, spring 1996)
Necessity is not the mother of invention - only of improvement. A man desperately in search of a weapon or food is in no mood for discovery; he can only exploit what is already known to exist. Innovation and discovery require aesthetically motivated curiosity; they do not arise under the pressure of need, although of course once new properties of matter or new mechanisms become known they are available for any use.
This may sound strange, coming from a technologist, but the fact is that down through history, most of man's inventions have first appeared in decorative rather than practical applications.
Metallurgy began with the making of necklace beads and ornaments in hammered naturally occurring copper long before "useful" knives and weapons were made. The improvement of metals by alloying and heat treatment as well as most methods of shaping them started in jewelry and sculpture. Casting in complicated moulds began in the manufacture of statuettes. Welding was first used to join parts of bronze sculpture together - none but the smallest bronze statues of Greece or ceremonial vessels of Shang China could have been fabricated without the technique.
Ceramics began with fire-hardening of fertility figurines molded of clay; glass came trough attempts to glaze quartz and steatite beads Most minerals and many organic and inorganic compounds were discovered for use as pigments. Indeed, the first record that man knew of iron and manganese ores is found in the prehistoric cave paintings where these ores provided the glorious reds, browns and blacks.
In other fields, archaeologists have shown that the transplanting and cultivation of flowers for enjoyment long preceded practical agriculture, while playing with pets perhaps gave the knowledge that was needed for purposeful animal husbandry. To go back even earlier, it is hardly possible that human beings could have decided logically that they needed to develop language in order to communicate with each other before they had experienced pleasurable interactive communal activities like singing and dancing. Selection via aesthetic curiosity has been central to both genetic and cultural evolution.
devices were not extensively developed in the ancient world, but note that
wheels first appeared on toys and that the automata based on hydraulic and
mechanical tricks that were used in Greek temples and theaters foreshadowed
the waterwheel and the clock. The lathe reached an apex of ingenuity in turning
guilloché snuff boxes a century before heavy industry used it. Blocks for
printing pictures preceded purposeful type, and rockets for fun came before
their military use or space travel. The techniques of casting bells, like
the material of which they were made, were ready to be directed toward a different
kind of sound and purpose when princes wanted cannon.
Enjoyment of color has inspired the development of many alloys - for example, the famous Mycenaean inlaid dagger in the National Museum in Athens and the exquisite colored metal inlay of Japanese sword furniture. The color changes in metals, oxides and sulphides discovered by early artisans permeate medieval alchemy - a dead end of delightful but unproductive theory. The marvelous golds and blues of medieval illuminated manuscripts came from pigments made by processes that foreshadow modern powder metallurgy and the flotation process of ore beneficiation. The desire for pigments, dyes and cosmetics inspired much mineralogical and botanical exploration, while precious stones, dyes and spices along with fancy jewelry formed the first base of commerce - for long-range trade did not start with necessities. Even bankers were once goldsmiths.
chemical industry grew from the need for quantities of mordants, bleaches
and alkalis for use in the finer textiles and glass. Geology, chemical analysis
and high temperature research all took a leap forward in 18th Century Europe
under the impact of the potter's need to duplicate the marvelous wares coming
from the Orient and which had started the craze for chinoiserie. The great
French scientist Reaumur made a cheap, crystalline "porcelain" by devitrifying
glass, and he also developed malleable cast iron in his search for a cheaper
substitute for the handsome chiseled wrought iron work on noblemen's gates.
In all of these cases, and many more, it was aesthetic curiosity that led to initial discovery of some useful property of matter or manner of shaping it for use. Up to the present century, it was nearly always the desire for beauty that led to advances in production techniques. Before he made steam engines with James Watt, Matthew Boulton was making silverware and shoe buckles in quantity. The desire to beautify the utilitarian has always stretched the ingenuity of the mechanic, who used complex devices to shape trinkets before turning to automobile parts or weapons. It is the same in building construction temples and churches, not necessarily structures for the purpose of shelter, led to imaginative new building methods. Even railroad rails and the steel girders for today's skyscrapers needed a precursor in the form of the little mill for rolling lead cames used in medieval stained glass windows.
In the 19th century, the milieu of discovery began to expand. Science created a new environment in which imaginative curiosity could operate. Though the discovery of voltaic electricity came from an unaesthetic experiment on a frog's leg, it remained unused until 1837, when the electric telegraph and electrotyping were both seen to be useful. The utility of the latter, however, lay only in the arts, as a process for electrolytically duplicating coins, p1aques, statuary, and engraved or etched plates for the graphic artist.
All the great illustrated newspapers stem from this - the Illustrated London News, the Scientific American, L'Illustration and Harper's Weekly. Soon electrolytic baths were giving rise to monumental sculpture, some works weighing over 7500 pounds. Many of the "bronzes" in the Paris opera house are of electrodeposited copper, and a nice English example is the 10-1/2 foot high statue of Prince Albert behind Albert hall in London, made by the firm of Elkington in 1863.
Almost immediately an even larger use for "galvanism" developed - the production of metalware for middle-class tables having all the glitter of the rich man's silver and gold. Within a decade, Sheffield plate was supplanted by electrodeposited silverware, with a not always felicitous relaxation of restraint on design.
At first, the electric current for these applications came from innumerable small batteries, but the growing need prompted the making (in 1842) of the first commercial electric generator driven by steam. The giant electric power industry of today started as an art industry.
All big things grow from little things, but new little things are destroyed by their environment unless they are cherished for reasons more like aesthetic appreciation than practical utility.
But how do the seeds of human achievement take form in the first place? Not just by taking logical thought, but rather by giving curiosity full rein and using all of a human being's capability, his holistic powers of understanding and aesthetic imagination as well as his analytical skills. I do not mean to imply that all technologists are sensitive aesthetes, but I do maintain that historical records - better those of things rather than words - show that the beginning of much useful technology occurred in an aesthetic milieu. The subsequent and more obvious stages of profitable development and social importance could occur only as a sequel to quite different dynamics.
simple picture of origins outlined above, which applies so well to the early
stages of many early technologies, seems hardly applicable to the 20th century.
The experience of discovery in the laboratory is still an essentially aesthetic
one (a fact rather thoroughly disguised by the accepted style of reporting
the results), but the motivation is rarely a desire to create beauty. Why
is this? Is it just that the patronage for creation has changed, or is it
that most of what we notice today is not creation but merely a natural or
unnatural refinement of the old, while the really new is around unnoticed
awaiting its time for constructive interaction in an environment that does
not yet exist? Whatever the truth may be, it should be at least clear that
neither art nor history can be understood without paying attention to the
role of technology;
nor can technology be understood without history and art.
C.S.Smith A history of metallography MIT press 1988
most interesting properties of useful materials depend upon intricacies of
structure that have much in common with the complexities of biological cells
and organisms. As with any history, both what did and what did not happen
are of interest. (...)
Everything that we can talk about involves the relationship of a human mind to other humans, to the things they have made, or to nature. Without internal experience there could be no external communication. The mind is more complex than the brain alone; the response of the whole body influences both experience and memory. Understanding, even scientific understanding as distinct from analytical proof and extension, seems to be in large part emotional, for it involves an interplay between what the senses can feel and what the mind can think about: movement, resistance, and the interlock of parts into patterns.
Perception is the discovery of a link between sensable quality and conceivable structure. One cannot know the meaning until one has had the experience. Both as individuals and as societies we first explore the world sensually (aesthetically at the higher points); then we seek to explain and exploit what we have discovered by finding replicable relationships between as many parts as possible; finally we move beyond this to emotionally satisfying understanding. (...) art for the sake of art has had a role in the development of useful technology and of logical science.
However, neither science nor art needs to find justification in the useful things that sometimes stem from them. It is sufficient that they are simply and wonderfully human. Both are expressions of human potentialities, and if they have any function at all it is to provide chancy concepts with opportunities for new interactions, thus carrying the mechanisms of evolution from the biological realm into those of culture and society. The utility of a thing or an idea depends upon the replication and incorporation at the interactive social level of something initially individual and unique.
Aesthetic curiosity,not perceived purpose, seems to have been the motive for most discoveries that have triggered technological and scientific changes with their profound effect on social organization.