March 25, 2013 16 Comments
I admit I haven’t been paying much attention to the intellectual decline of my own country - I’m far too fascinated with the collapse of the one I’m actually living in – but I came home last night to an email urging me to vote online for the top British innovation. The sender wanted me to vote for Alan Turing and his glorious universal machine because …[drum roll]… it was about to get beaten into second place by the Mini.
Yes, the Mini. The cute little car, not the cute little dress, which frankly I think might have made for a more difficult choice. In the end, Turing won by a whisker, and I think the theoretical foundation for the digital computer is certainly a defensible proposition for Britain’s most innovative idea. But the Mini still came second. SECOND. Little things like the jet engine, holograms, MRI scanners, radar and splitting the atom came way down the list.
Just to make it even more perplexing, the Mallard came fifth. The Mallard, as you will know, given its apparent historical importance, is a steam locomotive, and the thing that apparently made it the fifth most innovative thing the British have done was that it was the fastest steam locomotive ever. Well, all due respect to it for that. But the thing is, the British invented the steam locomotive in the first place! They invented the steam engine that not only powered the Mallard but changed the face of human productivity. They even invented the passenger railway upon which the Mallard rode. How can the ability to do something incrementally better than its predecessors possibly be more innovative than inventing the thing in the first place? Yet as far as I can see, the steam engine didn’t even make it onto the list. [Edit: I now realize this is because the vote was for the best innovation in the past 100 years, so the steam engine, along with factories, iron ships, suspension bridges, etc. doesn't count.] But hey, the clockwork radio and a better kind of vacuum cleaner were right up there alongside such irrelevant fripperies as penicillin, DNA and the world wide web, so the Mini had a run for its money.
It’s not the list itself that surprised me, though, it was the vote for the Mini, lovely as it is. What went through the minds of the people who voted for it? “Jeez, never mind antibiotics; where would humanity be without the Mini Cooper, huh?”
This sounds like a British government attempt to fly the flag, and somehow the flag always seems to end up hanging limply in the drizzling rain as a result. I’m not really into patriotism. We can only be judged on what we do ourselves, not what was done by people we just happen to have shared a landmass with. But is it any wonder that American presidents can give speeches extolling the virtues of great American inventions that weren’t actually American, if we don’t properly appreciate the significance of our own history? American kids get taught that America invented EVERYTHING, and here we are telling them they’re not entirely right, because they didn’t invent the Austin Mini, and we once invented something that was even slightly better than that. I realize the history of invention is complicated and that standing on the shoulders of giants often makes it difficult to pin down the origin of things. After all, who really invented television? John Logie Baird (Scottish)? He was the first to transmit pictures but we don’t use his system. We actually use (or rather used to use – how quaint; I’m getting old) scanning electron beams. The scanning part of the idea is American and the cathode ray tube that makes it possible was mostly developed in England but can be traced back to Geissler tubes, which are German. When it comes down to it, all inventions are products of HUMAN ingenuity, and it makes no real difference which country that human being comes from. But the Mini? Really? Are there genuinely people who think that’s the best my country could do? Is that what we want to tell the world? We invented a rather entertainingly small car?
I should illustrate this post with something impressively industrial, but I don’t have any suitable photos to hand, so instead, here’s a picture of the PanSTARRS comet that I took a few days ago, for those of you who live in the land of my fathers – that small island of great inventors but incessant rain - who doubtless missed seeing it. I’m sure the cloudy skies encouraged the British interest in radio astronomy, though, and Jocelyn Bell’s discovery of pulsars came fourth, just above the Mallard!