The other day I bought a washing machine. It was quite easy and straightforward to set it up and run it. You give it electricity, a water supply source, bump some soap, press one button, select an option, press start, and wait. You have a screen with an estimation of how much time it will take to finish and it makes a characteristic sound when it does so. In other words, it’s a miracle. It is still damn heavy so there is room for improvement in that aspect.
Turns out that every object has a cycle that took thousands upon thousands of iterations to refine and evolve in its current form. Every small detail - among many that didn’t make it - might have taken countless hours of tinkering to get just right and many of what we see as self-evident costed resources, time, hardship, and in some cases even human lives. This is a normal way of doing things but for the people who are not some kind of engineer or inventor, is not something we usually think of. What works great, easily and seamlessly was once … nothing at all.
One such case was the washing machine. The washing machine, like all electrical devices, started with a sloppy and quick prototype, barely working. It was a promise and nothing more, just one more thing that was tried out among many hatching appliances at the start of the 20th century. Through trial and error though, it was refined and slowly gained adoption, unlikely other ones that didn’t catch up(the tie ironer and the shoe warmer were not the next big thing).
One of the first electric-powered washing machines could be dated back to 1908 with the Thor model, manufactured by the Hurley Machine Company. It looked pretty primitive by today’s standards, but it was promising. Back in the day houses were wired for lighting, not for appliances meaning that all electrical devices like a toaster or a heater were being used without the on/off switch since it hadn’t been invented at the time, and neither did the socket. So you had a cable with a light-ball screw on one end which worked pretty much like how you would screw a regular light-ball. Did you want to turn the toaster on? You screw the appliance in the light-ball socket and when you were done you just unscrewed it. This might have worked in the instance of a toaster but imagine it in the case of the washing machine.
There are several anecdotes about tragic accidents happening relating to the washing machine. Just the fact of having to deal with electricity and water pouring out of the washing machine in the same place, well, things got nasty. So what better thing to do than to plug this death machine in another room, as far away from water as possible.
But hair would often get caught into the machine with no way of shutting the thing off since you had to unscrew its power supply from the light-ball socket located in another room. There are stories of people asphyxiating due to their clothes getting caught and tightening the area of the neck. Which was the case with the Wringer model around the 60’s.
Accidents, though tragic, happen. If you are experimenting with new stuff anything can happen.
We either say erase everything and go back or make improvements and go forward. There is no such thing as staying in the same place. Imagine the first time cars started crashing on each other. We could easily say no more cars, but instead, we thought of traffic lights. We can choose to stay with a problem and tough it out or move on to an improved version of the problem.
But this is not the whole story. We only covered the physical aspect of an invention. Apart from its physical manifestation, an idea has to be preceded by some kind of marination period in the head of the inventor followed by some kind of proof of concept process.
It is historically known that many people had come up and worked on the same idea or invention often in different places of the world all simultaneously. Perhaps they all observed an occurring problem, and some of them took matters into their own hands, seeking new knowledge that could help them. Possibly from a traveler that brought news from a distant place or by tweaking an old relative’s crazy idea, either way, there had to be some kind of idea exchange. Knowledge from the past, either right or wrong, was around so there were some pieces already in place.
Or as Matt Ridley quoted in How Innovation Works:
The first version of a new technology looks surprisingly like the last version of an old technology.
We all like heroes, a single person to place on a pedestal. But often we can’t pinpoint a single person that fixed something from top to bottom and without outside influence or shared knowledge. “We stand in the shoulders of giants” the saying goes. We all contribute to this huge bucket of knowledge and we extract pieces of that knowledge on demand.
None of us is as smart as all of us - Ken Blanchard
One person is unlikely to make thousands or millions of iterations in an invention. There is simply no time to do so. No one brain is better equipped and smart enough to think of every possible point of failure or improvement. An invention or object or appliance is created by many and someone just happens to be the last one to hold the baton through the finish line. Not that the last person is any less than all the others but all equally played a crucial role in pushing the process forward.
Next time you use an appliance or any kind of everyday object, take a minute and think of how this thing that works in front of you, started in the first place. And if you happen to be an engineer or creator, you can be a part of progress. Part of the collective knowledge.