I have always been interested in the way great scientists and inventors are able to make connections (or cross-appropriations) between seemingly unrelated domains. Being able to see relationships like these enables one to come up with truly ingenious solutions. Some of the connections might seem obvious to us now, but they only seem so in retrospect. Somebody had to be the first one to notice and implement them. What follows is a few examples of these kinds of connections.
Analytical Engine — Charles Babbage
Charles Babbage is considered by most science historians to be the grandfather of modern computing. He was a prolific inventor but he is most known for his work on the Analytical Engine. The analytical Engine was a revolutionary idea in the beginning of the 19th century and far ahead of its time. It was supposed to be able to add, deduct, multiply and divide. The mathematical tables at the time were computed by humans and were full of errors. Babbage envisioned that his Analytical Engine would completely eliminate the human (and human error) from the process of counting. To achieve this, there had to be a way to instruct the machine to perform specific operations, what we today call programming. Instead of creating something from scratch, Babbage borrowed the concept of the punch card from Jacquard’s loom. In both instances, the punch card would convey a series of instructions. In the textile factory, the instructions were sent to a loom and in the Analytical Engine, sent to an engine to perform mathematical calculations. He made the mental leap from the textile industry and a specific loom to an engine that counts, a totally novel concept that was not fully realized in the inventor’s lifetime.
Plaster Cast — Nikolai Pirogov
The great Russian surgeon, Nikolai Pirogov, is considered a founding father of field surgery. In the mid 19th century, if a soldier broke a leg during combat, it was sure to be amputated. There were no other options at the time as the method of casting a broken limb didn’t not yet exist. While at his sculptor friend’s studio, Pirogov noticed how his friend prepared a substance to be used for the creation of a new sculpture — plaster. Later that day Pirogov made the connection between a sculptor’s plaster cast and a soldier’s broken leg. He used plaster to create casts for broken legs and saved thousands of soldiers from amputation. He revolutionized orthopedic medicine using a material and a concept that artists had been utilizing for thousands of years.
Infant Incubator — Stephane Tarnier
The infant mortality rate in the 19th century was unimaginably high. One out of five newborn babies died in the first couple of months. Stephane Tarnier, a Parisian obstetrician, was acutely aware of this problem. During one of his visits to a local Zoo, he attended an exhibit of chicken incubators and noticed how hatchlings were put in the warm inclosure. Tarnier was able to connect the chicken incubator with temperature regulation for newborn babies. He ordered a special “baby-warming” device which was responsible for reducing the infant mortality rate by 28%.
Printing Press — Johannes Gutenberg
Before the printing press was invented almost no one could write, few could read and knowledge was spread orally. After the invention of the printing press, literacy became common, literature began to flourish, news “papers” started and knowledge started to spread through printed materials.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press by connecting four innovations that had been invented by other people before him: Ink, Paper, Wine press and Movable type. By combining the four existing products into one, Gutenberg invented a device that revolutionized the printing industry. In the first 50 years after the invention of the printing press 8 million books were printed!
Anatomical Atlas — Nikolai Pirogov
It’s hard to underestimate how important it is that a surgeon knows the precise location of each human organ. In the mid nineteen hundreds, however, there were no books that would display the location of human organs with detailed precision. To create an anatomical atlas, one would have to perform an autopsy and record locations of each organ. Unfortunately, when an autopsy was performed, rushing air into the opening would change the position of the organs. As a result, anatomical atlases of the time only depicted approximate locations of human organs.
One winter day, while walking through an open market, Pirogov noticed frozen pig carcasses and later made the connection between a frozen pig carcass and a human body. By freezing the body before performing an autopsy he was able to preserve the precise location of each human organ. (There were no freezers at the time, so he would leave the bodies outside for days in the frigid Russian winter!) In 1852 Pirogov published his Anatomical Atlas which was the first atlas to display the precise locations of each human organ.
Here is a simple mind map to help you visualize the described connections.
Doron, Swade. The Cogwheel Brain. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000
Porudominski, V. Pirogov. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardia, 1965
Tolstoy, Ivan. The Knowledge and The Power. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 1990
Tarde, Gabriel. The Laws of Imitations. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1903
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From. New York: Reverhead Books, 2010
Burke, James. The Day The Universe Changed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995