Thursday, January 05, 2012

What is Luck? [an inventor's perspective]

[This is a rough draft/outline of a section of the book I'm working on. I'm not sure this piece will make it into the book, though. ]

Let's take as a starting point Kahaneman's formula that "success is talent + luck" and "great success is a little more talent + a lot of luck."

It follows that in every highly successful invention we should be able to discover a lot of luck. What kind of luck? What should we be looking for?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines luck as

a: a force that brings good fortune or adversity;
b: the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual;
c: favoring chance.

Definitions a and c are tautological; they won't survive logic analysis. Definition b is closer to what we need because it talks about circumstances that operate independently from an individual and don't contain fuzzy notions like "force" and "fortune." Thus, we can take Kahneman's formula and re-write it as follows:

great success = a little more talent + strong circumstances that operate for the individual.

Finding strong circumstances that help invention should be relatively easy.

Consider the example of Otto Frederick Rohwedder, the inventor of bread slicing machine. He started working on the idea in 1912. In 1916, he sold his jewelry stores and moved back to Davenport, his home town, to work full time on implementation. In 1917, he suffered a major setback [bad luck] when his blueprints and prototypes were destroyed in a fire.

While making a living as a financial agent, Rohwedder continued working on the idea. In 1927, fifteen years after starting the project, he came up with a machine that not only sliced, but also wrapped up the bread. [wrapping is important and it deserves a separate discussion]. In 1928, he built and sold his first machine - customers loved sliced bread.

In 1929, stock market crashes and, to stay afloat financially, Rohwedder sells rights to his technology [again bad luck]. In the meantime, consumer demand for sliced bread persists. In the beginning of the 1930s, Wonder Bread enters the market and by 1933 sales of sliced bread outpace those of unsliced bread. Sliced bread becomes proverbial. During WWII when authorities forbid its sale, the public complains and the authorities are forced to reconsider their decision.

Back to the formula for success. Definitely, Rohwedder has talent. But the sixty-four billion dollar question is, Where's a lot of luck? What are the strong circumstances that operate for the individual?

The answer seems to be, there's no good luck for Rohwedder. He suffers a fire, loses of assets, and faces strong competition. But there's a lot of luck for sliced bread and the bread slicing machine, i.e. his inventions. What are the circumstances that work for them?

Earlier I noted that in 1910, GE introduced first commercially successful toaster. With this information,  the start of Rohwedder's quest for sliced bread in 1912 doesn't look accidental anymore. Successful toasters need sliced bread.

Let's follow the toaster thread further. In 1920, Charles P. Strite invents the pop-up toaster with timer. The new design solves two problems: bread slices don't get burned and the toasting process is sped up because heat is applied to both sides at the same time. By 1926, Strite's toaster is a major commercial success. People love the toaster, but slicing bread is a tedious task. Besides, to produce consistent results, the toaster requires uniform slices - something that can't be done consistently by a human. In short, because of the toaster success, there's a lot of demand for regularly sliced bread. The stage for the bread slicing machine is set. The toaster is it's luck, i.e. strong circumstances that favor an individual. If not for the improved toaster, nobody would care for high-performance bread slicing technology.

Two additional considerations. One: From the beginning of the 1900s, electricity becomes common in houses and businesses. In 1904, long-lasting tungsten filament for light bulbs is patented. In 1906, GE patents a process for mass production of tungsten wire for light bulbs. The same wire is used in toasters. Lucky toasters!

Two: In the early 1900s, Henry Ford begins using electric motors in his car factories. With the adoption of his mass manufacturing methods, the electric motor technology is improved dramatically. It is not a coincidence that by the 1930s Rohwedder's bread slicing machine uses electric motor. Lucky machine!

To summarize: First, when we talk about successful invention/innovation, the luck component operates not for an individual, but for his/her invention. Second, luck operates on at least three levels: 1) the invention works. e.g. the bread slicing machine is operational as designed; 2) the invention scales. e.g. the bread slicing machine with its mechanical and electric components can be mass produced; 3) there's a need to scale. e.g. there's a lot of hungry toasters out there in the wild.

tags: system, source, tool, scale, magicians

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