Every so often a radio show comes along that seems tailor-made for showing off at dinner parties. The award-winning Freakonomics podcast is one; Tim Harford’s More or Less is another. And now we have Patented: History of Inventions, in which the presenter Dallas Campbell speaks to experts to find out how the innovations that power our lives really came about.
First up is the science writer and Tory peer Matt Ridley on the steam train, invented by George Stephenson in 1825. Or was it? Ridley encourages us not to think of inventions as “great leaps” of technological advancement, but rather a gradual, collaborative process that results in world-changing progress. He is as interested in other transport revolutions as he is in trains, pointing out that the Wright brothers’ first motor-powered flight in 1903 was only possible thanks to the work of other pioneers across the world who were studying kites, birds and wind tunnels. “Innovation is a collective phenomenon that happens between, not within, brains,” we are told. “Even if you are the inventor of something, you don’t know how to make the ingredients.”
Later, we’re treated to some predictions of what breakthroughs we might expect in our lifetimes: the Hyperloop (no), further revolutions in telecommunications (also no), commercial space travel (probably not). Ridley thinks we will see huge progress in biotech and medical science, now that the potential of genetic engineering is finally being realised. This segues nicely into episode two, in which Campbell chats to the geneticist Adam Rutherford about why gene editing is like hip-hop music. Future episodes promise to consider military drones, condoms and the concept of zero. But I’ve already got the killer fact for my next dinner party ready: when umbrellas were first introduced, they were fiercely opposed by hansom cab drivers worried that this new invention would disrupt their livelihoods by encouraging walking. Some things never change.
Patented: History of Inventions
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain