Puke Ariki and the Mothers of Invention

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
29 January, 2021

It’s comforting to think that necessity is the mother of invention. By that account, come the time, the inventor will rise, and problems will be solved.

Historian of Innovation Anton Howes has been studying the backgrounds and lives of some 1,500 inventors, over three centuries of the industrial revolution. He suggests that necessity cannot be the mother of invention, because necessity has always been with us. Necessity instead provides the problems to which inventors apply their skills – if any are around. If no one of an inventive disposition is to hand, hard problems can remain unsolved for a long time.

Dr Howes points to the innovative culture inventors built as having been vital. Inventors and innovators met with each other, formed societies to encourage invention and innovation, and awarded prizes for great inventions.

The best predictor of whether someone becomes an inventor is not whether there are hard problems at hand to solve; the world is always filled with hard problems. Instead, Dr Howes finds that being exposed to other inventors seems crucially important for future inventors. Some 83% of the inventors in his three-hundred-year sample had met other inventors before they had invented anything themselves, and Howes suspects he does not know enough about the other 17%.

Seeing inventors and innovators helps build an inventive mentality that sees problems as opportunities for making the world a better place. He speculates that exposing more people to the culture of invention and innovation, celebrating inventiveness and discovery, could help in building future inventors.

Other barriers, including regulation, can also stymie invention. But having more inventors makes invention more likely.

During this summer holiday tour of Wellington’s greater backyard, our family visited New Plymouth’s superb museum, Puke Ariki. And we discovered something wonderful: a venue that celebrated innovation and discovery rather than problematising it.

The museum highlighted the achievements of local inventors who applied their skills to the problems at hand. Better haying equipment, butter presses, mining drills, and even the first farm bike. It was coupled with old footage of the inventors and conversations with those who knew them and who testified to their inventiveness.

Necessity is constant. The culture of invention that overcomes necessity needs not be taken for granted.

Take the trip to Puke Ariki and bring your kids. Future inventions may need a mother.

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