How to mess up on invention

by reestheskin on 14/03/2016

Comments are disabled

People always want to mess up on invention. This about the birth of email and the death of Ray Tomlinson.

“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said in a statement about Tomlinson’s death.

When Tomlinson showed his early work on email to his coworker at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), Jerry Burchfiel, he was initially warned that he shouldn’t show anyone what he was doing. “Don’t tell anyone!” Burchfiel reportedly said. “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

Tomlinson’s death gives us a chance to look at how various innovations come to pass. They are rarely, if ever, the work of one person. And in the case of email, Tomlinson contributed greatly, along with people like Bob Clements of BBN, Dick Watson of SRI International, and Stephen Lukasik of ARPA (now known as Darpa). And they all managed to anger the Department of Defense for quite literally being too ahead of their time.

We owe the word ‘revolution’ — in the meaning of changing the world — to Galileo and the motion of the planets. You can almost define invention as that which disturbs: it is why Freeman Dyson, titled one of  his book’s about science, ‘Disturbing the Universe’. But each generation wants to forget this, ours perhaps more than others. One of the great things about computing over the last half century is that sometimes the barriers to entry have been so low: biology and medicine are much harder. The other lesson: do not be too far ahead of your time.