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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Don't Look for Inventions Before Their Time

Innovation as an evolutionary process

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.

The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.

As Kevin Kelly argues in his book "What Technology Wants," there is an inexorability about technological evolution, expressed in multiple discovery, that makes it look as if technological innovation is an autonomous process with us as its victims rather than its directors.

Yet some inventions seem to have occurred to nobody until very late. The wheeled suitcase is arguably such a, well, case. Bernard Sadow applied for a patent on wheeled baggage in 1970, after a Eureka moment when he was lugging his heavy bags through an airport while a local worker effortlessly pushed a large cart past. You might conclude that Mr. Sadow was decades late. There was little to stop his father or grandfather from putting wheels on bags.

Mr. Sadow's bags ran on four wheels, dragged on a lead like a dog. Seventeen years later a Northwest Airlines pilot, Robert Plath, invented the idea of two wheels on a suitcase held vertically, plus a telescopic handle to pull it with. This "Rollaboard," now ubiquitous, also feels as if it could have been invented much earlier.

Or take the can opener, invented in the 1850s, eight decades after the can. Early 19th-century soldiers and explorers had to make do with stabbing bayonets into food cans. "Why doesn't somebody come up with a wheeled cutter?" they must have muttered (or not) as they wrenched open the cans.

Perhaps there's something that could be around today but hasn't been invented and that will seem obvious to future generations. Or perhaps not. It's highly unlikely that brilliant inventions are lying on the sidewalk ignored by the millions of entrepreneurs falling over each other to innovate. Plenty of terrible ideas are tried every day.

Understanding why inventions take so long may require mentally revisiting a long-ago time. For a poorly paid Napoleonic soldier who already carried a decent bayonet, adding a can opener to his limited kitbag was probably a waste of money and space. Indeed, going back to wheeled bags, if you consider the abundance of luggage porters with carts in the 1960s, the ease of curbside drop-offs at much smaller airports and the heavy iron casters then available, 1970 seems about the right date for the first invention of rolling luggage.

Just as it made little sense to invent the wheelie-case before the great expansion of air travel, so it made little sense to invent the laptop before 1982, when computers had begin to shrink, or the bicycle before the emergence of the motorcar had resulted in the appearance of smooth roads and pneumatic tires.

The more you examine the history of technology, the more evolutionary it looks. Invention is incremental rather than revolutionary, inevitable rather than idiosyncratic, and it emerges unplanned from the cross-fertilization of ideas. Once the Internet exists, the search engine will not be far behind. Even something that seems unique to one culture, such as the boomerang in Australia, turns out not to be. There are 3,300-year-old returning boomerangs in Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt.