Lightbulb Moments in History

We know that innovation has been a constant force for change since the last century, but it seems we have crossed an invisible point in history where, instead of the rate of change slowing down, as many people expected it to, it is accelerating. 

It is like we were travelling in a really fast car at an incredible speed, and just when we thought we were travelling at full speed, the car suddenly began to accelerate and go even faster.

The question is, why now? What is causing the pace of innovation to increase?

The best way to answer this question is by an example. 

Benjamin Franklin, the famous inventor and scientist did his famous kite experiment in the year 1752. His aim was to prove that lightning was electricity, and that he could channel that electricity through a metal cable.

The experiment was a success, and miraculously Franklin survived it without being electrocuted.

Franklin’s experiment kicked off an era of serious scientific studies and discoveries on electricity, and by the early 1800’s scientists had mastered the use of electricity.

However, electricity never went mainstream until over 150 years after Franklin’s kite experiment. Why?

The answer is that no one saw the mainstream value of electricity. It was a great phenomenon to work with in a lab and to do experiments on, but that was the limit to its use.

All that was about to change in 1879, when another great American inventor, Thomas Edison, invented the first incandescent light bulb, a type of light bulb that produced light by passing electricity through an extremely thin metal filament.

The light bulb was no short of a miraculous invention in itself, but it also set off a series of events that went on to change our world. 

People immediately saw the advantages of the electric light over traditional lamps. They were cleaner, produced no smoke and unpleasant smells, were much brighter, and didn’t need to be constantly refuelled. Soon there was a demand for electric lighting. 

Naturally, with the demand for lights came the need for electricity supply.

In 1882 Edison set up the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which began to roll out light bulbs to streets and homes close by. Within a short space of just of 30 years, the whole of the United States was electrified, and the rest of the world was soon to follow.

What we learn from this example, is that many great innovations are insufficient in themselves to drive any major change. They just sit on a shelf, waiting.

Eventually, a new innovation comes along, and a combination of the two innovations is what changes everything. Like electricity and the light bulb, each innovation was in itself insufficient to drive any real change. But combined, they worked together to spark a revolution that transformed our world.

This has been a recurring pattern throughout history, and the current wave of innovation we are experiencing, is no different. It is a time of convergence of a series of innovations which had been around for some time, but have never combined in any significant way, until now.

What are those innovations? They are artificial intelligence, computer networks and cyber-physical systems, and they are changing our world in previously unimaginable ways and have sparked a revolution: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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