The WHAT?

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!

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

19 Responses to The WHAT?

  1. Sue Sharpe says:

    Unbelievable! I would not have know of this had you not been so kind as to blog about it and, with all due respect, now wish you hadn’t as I will be spending the rest of the evening (as it is here in Spain) ranting to the other half and probably the dog (once Phil has stopped listening to me). How very kind of you to (a) take such a beautiful photo and (b) share it with us. This at least will give me something to smile about.

  2. Knud says:

    Voting is a popularity contest. So I am not surprised by the result.

  3. Great stuff, Steve >)

  4. dranorter says:

    Given the way the vote went I suppose people were not thinking of the *individually* most innovative thing, but rather considering how much sum total innovation goes into the object. So the Mallard sums up all that other steam/train stuff. But the only way I can explain the Mini Cooper doing so well is that people see it as more fundamentally British.

  5. Guilherme Coppini says:

    What? Mini cooper? REALLY???
    That’s totally absurd!!!!!!!!!!!!!eleven!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I can’t believe it… UK is the home of many invetors, and is where hundreds of inventions were designed… Having the Mini Cooper as second “most innovative” thing in this country is just ridiculous… I’m brazillian, but I believe I’m as shocked as you were…

    Faith in humanity… ANNIHILATED!

  6. lisa nason says:

    And what a “cute” little decline at that… I know you already stated something similar, but having been born and raised in a country that worships “Snooky,” “the Kardashian’s,” and “Dennis Rodman,” I’ll trade your country’s intellectual decline for mine any old day! 😉

  7. Dan says:

    Once again you’ve improved the tenor of my day with your droll humor and a reminder that I’m not alone in my intellectual outrage. I often remind myself that people have been predicting the end of civilization since the beginning of civilization, usually in error. That doesn’t make idiocy easier to swallow.

  8. Dan says:

    …and I forgot to mention that your picture is fantastic, and if I had to rank it in the greatest American graphic arts (I will appropriate it, since you are here), I’d place it slightly above the smiley face. Just by a hair.

  9. Werrick says:

    Ideas are like organisms. The successful ones find mates, reproduce and evolve. The lame ones are forgotten and die off. They travel like viruses through several mediums, nest in brain matter, and eat contemplation. They excrete emotions which vary due to diet, and their presence influences the environment around them. Huh. Just about anything could be alive if you think about it. Maybe humans are ideas?

    PS: Big fan.

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! I see what you did there. But the Earth is like an apple – it’s round; it has a hard skin and a core. Maybe apples are planets? Watch out: “is like a” is not a commutative operator! 🙂 But at a more metaphorical level I think you have an important point. Ideas are the organization of something – not the things themselves but their organization. A living being is also the organization of something, not the things themselves. Organizations are subject to transmission, self-maintenance, etc., just like you say. Richard Dawkins took up this notion of “memes” – of the relationship between survival of the fittest ideas and survival of the fittest organisms. But it’s not that A and B are similar, so therefore either A is a B or B is an A. It’s that both A and B are examples of a common C. We would understand the universe so much more if we looked at it in terms of C! Sounds to me like that’s where you’re heading.

  10. Kurt says:

    Dear Steve,

    I played creatures back when I was 12 years old, I’m now 24 and just tried to search if there was a new version or see what new things you have been creating.

    I am so delighted that you are working on a similar, but greater project. Creatures still stands out as a hugely complicated yet wonderfully simple game which was a different experience with each gamer.

    I want to know how far this new game is in development, I really want to play it! Please let me know,

    Best

    Kurt

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks Kurt! Yep, the new project has turned into a huge monster, so it will be about a year yet before I finish it, probably. It’s going well, and I’m excited by the way my theories are working out, but it’s a massive undertaking so there’s not much to see yet. I’ll blog about my progress eventually.

  11. Chip says:

    Steve, you are my personal hero. Finally, someone who sees what’s really important in the world!

    PS; how’s the Grandroids project coming along?

  12. Noël says:

    Since when is DNA a invention of the past 100 years?

  13. sam says:

    Hi Steve Grand,
    As someone who has really enjoyed reading (and sharing!) your blog posts in the past, I do wish you’d write more for us to read. Your thoughts would be much appreciated in this national (and international) storm.
    Sam

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks Sam, you’re very kind! I’d love to get back to blogging – there’s SO much to say about what’s going on at the moment. The trouble is, I’m working my butt off on the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and I don’t have much spare brainpower. I’ll see if I can get back to shooting my mouth off before WWIII begins, though 🙂

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