When did innovation get so cool?

I live in Rowayton, Connecticut. It’s a tiny town, around 4,500 people, that sits on Long Island Sound roughly 50 miles up from New York City. Rowayton is famous for… well, it’s not famous really. It’s a sleepy little place that has managed, by applying itself as little as possible, to remain almost entirely obscure.

Under the circumstances, this took some doing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Connecticut was a veritable Silicon Valley, filled with hard-charging inventors throwing off a profusion of new ideas and practices. Just up the coast, for instance, in a town called New Haven, Eli Whitney created the cotton gin and gun works.  Connecticut inventors were learning how to make machine tools. All those things once painstakingly assembled by hand (guns, watches, bicycles, and, yes, even machines) could now be mass manufactured. The earth trembled with industrial activity.

How Rowayton managed to sleep through this fury of invention … well, we can’t be sure. Certainly, there were local sources of income. Rowayton was briefly called the oyster capital of the world. Every day, its oysters went down to New York City where they were sold to factory and office workers as the fast food of their day. The other source of income, latterly, was a fairground that featured a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, concession stands, beauty contents, and big bands. This made us vulgar and noisy, and the object of much sniffing from Darien across the way. We didn’t care. We might be vulgar, but we had oysters and, um, a roller coaster!

And then one day, something happened. The Remington Rand Corporation came to town. It installed itself in an old estate in the middle of town. Remington Rand was active in the machine tool tradition: sewing machines, firearms and typewriters. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was trying to figure out how to make something called the “business computer.” (A machine that could do for information what the machine tool did for manufacture, that was worth trying for.)

The computer work was so top-secret they put it in a building called “the barn,” a sweet little building, all stone and faux Tudor timbers (pictured).  Actually, the barn looks like a preindustrial cottage, and the last place you’d expect to help produce the business computer. So much for appearances. The Barn created the Remington Rand 409. After hundreds of years of well-deserved obscurity, Rowayton had a claim to fame.

Photos from the Barn tell the story. Engineers, dressed in white shirts, wearing sensible glasses. One is wearing that early badge of geek chic, the pocket protector. And there is more than one short-sleeved shirt, that miracle of “Drip-dry” and “Wash and wear!”   No one actually has tape on his glasses, but one feels that’s only a matter of time.

This is what innovation looked like after World War II, deeply practical, happily inelegant. Guys in sensible shirts. People trying stuff until they got it right. The invention process was a deeply engaging, sometimes vexing thing. The beams of the second floor proved insufficient for the weight of the new computer, so they shored them up. Vacuum tubes ran hot and had to be replaced every three hours. There were problems large and small, and the guys at Remington Rand kept at it. By mid century they were done. Lo and behold, the father of the UNIVAC line of computers and great, great, great, great grandfather of the laptop on which I write.

This is innovation as we used to do it. The recipe was simple: put inventive souls in an isolated place, give them resources, and leave them alone. We called it “R&D,” Research and Development. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fashionable. It wasn’t sensible in certain ways. (Why was everyone white, male and middle aged?) But it was relentlessly curious. And practical. When ‘A’ didn’t work, someone said, “what about ‘B’?” And if that didn’t work, people were happy to run down the alphabet until they found something that did. “What if” was the order of the day.

There is something about this R&D tradition that feels at risk. That combination of hard thinking and brute pragmatism is now in peril. But this is just for starters. For ingenuity and reckless experiment funded a larger spirit of innovation. This was the “can do” world. A place of relentless ingenuity. And now it fails cowed, diminished, uncertain, less and less prepared to “try stuff and see what happens.” Westerners in general and Americans in particulars have retreated into pessimism. They have taken to their ideological corners. They have withdrawn from their furious engagement with the world. But of course we have grounds for discouragement. But I would have thought that the baby we do not wish to put out with the bathwater is our ability to solve problems. If we lose that once reckless, generous, exuberant spirit of invention that we truly are done for. It’s time for ingenuity to stage a comeback.

9 thoughts on “When did innovation get so cool?”

  1. Grant, I think there is still “what if,” but there is less “what” to “if” these days. Most of the obvious things have been done, for the most part. Skunkworks are impractical for many of the big ideas. Not only can you not gather up a few hundred vacuum tubes, or wire up some core memory, and have a project — you can’t do it with state-of-the-art materials unless you have a huge R&D budget. What keeps companies in the black these days is something like “permanent revolution”: Make a product and keep pasting new decorations onto it. Consider Adobe Acrobat, whose core hasn’t really changed since it debuted as Carousel in 1991. But that doesn’t stop Adobe from forcing us to readopt each time they need more R&D budget. That way, they can make more decorations! It’s not momentous, but it does keep folks on the West Coast in their sailboats.

    1. Peter, interesting but so pessimistic! I prefer the scenario that does we have driven down the barriers to entry and now financial capital is less important than intellectual capital. But then I am just singing the hymn for the West coast, as crafted by people on sail boats!

      1. Indeed — I’ve been hearing the mantra for many years, even before Stewart Brand and Sausalito became the center of the universe. And it’s okay to be optimistic, but I’ve also seen how hollow many ostensible innovations turn out to be. Acrobat is an example of a very elegant innovation, built by some of the greatest philosopher-engineers of our time. But to have it in Version 11 when 99% of the documents we use in a year would work in Version 1 if they allowed it, has nothing to do with innovation, only marketing.

  2. Grant, I came by your post, WHEN DID INNOVATION GET SO COOL?, via PSFK’s daily blogmail: http://www.psfk.com/2013/01/grant-mccracken-innovation.html

    I appreciate your recount of the Rowayton industrial innovation legacy and the roles UNIVAC R&D investments had in transforming the region during that era’s heyday — only to have the next such waves pass the village by and morph to other regions in the decades since. Many strategic regional/national economic development lessons can be drawn from your local econo-culture metaphor. The primary one for me is that a region without lasting cultural gravity loses its stars.

    I’m reminded of Annalee Saxenian’s book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128: http://books.google.com/books/about/Regional_Advantage.html?id=gnh2Rb1rcMIC

    Saxenian’s book examines the cultural advantages and limitations between the two regions. My takeaway from her thoughts is that there are two main types of economic cultural models at play. The traditional industrial model can be described as the Broker or East Coast model – a more closed-network, secretive, and socially stratified cultural system based on prior hierarchical norms. Comparatively, the Combinatorial or West Coast model reflects a much more open-source, adaptable, and empowering network that by necessity evolved from the more rapid combinations of ideas with resources to address relevant emerging market opportunities.

    Interestingly, the early East Coast model you described surrounding Rowayton was combinatorial, but gave way to the brokerage model over the past century. Might such fate befall Silicon Valley someday when the skyrocketing expense of econo-cultural access and performance force out the inventors and innovators to other regions? Does Rowayton have a second bite at the innovation apple, given that region’s many enduring strengths?

  3. For me that’s also a bit on the negative side. It may appear so … but imo that’s mostly because the large corporations and their doings are much more visible than the many small an medium sized operations that are doing exactly that. Corporations need detailed plannning and thrive on complexity. The smaller companies are still fast, flexible, taking risks, tinkering …

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