How does the ‘eureka moment’ happen? Who are the people that create a ‘eureka moment’ and what are their characteristics? What are the stories behind some of the inventions that have become an integral part of modern life? These are the fascinating questions that Gavin Weightman explores in his revelatory new book, Eureka: How Invention Happens, leading him to observe that the sense of ‘eureka’ as a moment of inspiration is very different from the concept of the ‘eureka moment’ and the actual point of scientific breakthrough.
In this four-part series for the YaleBooks blog, Gavin answers some intriguing questions about invention, and the innovation that now form a part of our everyday lives.
An Interview with Gavin Weightman – Part Four
Y: Your book traces the long pre-history of five important inventions in the 20th century. Are there challenges that inventors face now – in the 21st century – that the inventors of the past did not?
GW: One of the greatest challenges inventors faced in the past was a lack of demand for what it was they were spending long days and years creating. They were more often ridiculed than admired. The people of Kitty Hawk on the wild North Carolina coast thought the Wright brothers were “plumb crazy” attempting to fly a powered aeroplane. There was no demand for John Logie Baird’s television nor, initially, for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The inventor is driven by a desire to achieve something thought to be impossible. My guess is that is the same today as it was in the past. And just as the amateurs and outsiders played a vital role in turning scientific understanding and discovery into something of practical use, I anticipate they will do so in future. The fact that the technology becomes ever more sophisticated should not make life more difficult for innovators. After all, in the mid-1970s the Homebrew Computer Club, which met in a garage in California, inspired the creation of the first Apple.
Gavin Weightman is a journalist, historian, and former documentary filmmaker. He has published more than twenty books, including The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story and Children of the Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever. He lives in London.
Eureka: How Invention Happens by Gavin Weightman is available from Yale University Press