Where have all the polymaths gone?

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor because he could find connections between a series of unrelated inventions and ideas. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is critical for innovation and we should guard against the current trend of specialization that may hinder innovation.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In 1872, a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge was called upon to settle a bet between Leland Stanford, the governor of California, and his friend Frederick MacCrellish. The disagreement had to do with whether a horse in gallop ever had all four feet in the air or if at all times it had at least one foot on the ground. To settle this, Muybridge set up 12 cameras at 40ft intervals along the side of a racetrack, so that each took a photograph as the horse broke through a series of threads stretched across its path. He had created the world’s first slow-motion replay, and in the process proved that a horse in full gallop does get all four feet off the ground.

Having gone through the effort to take these images, Muybridge wanted to showcase them as best he could. He created a device that he called the “zoöpraxiscope" comprising 12 transparent glass discs on which his images had been printed and set them up so that they could revolve around a central light source. When the device spun, the image of the horse looked like it was moving.

When Thomas Alva Edison saw the zoöpraxiscope, he immediately realized the potential in the device. The ability to make moving pictures opened up a world of possibilities, but he knew that if he were to take this any further, he would have to use a different light source. Muybridge was using limelight, the most powerful incandescent of the time, but Edison knew that this was too dangerous to be commercially viable.

Around that time, electricity generation had been made possible by inventors like Frederick Holmes, who developed machines capable of generating electric current using large spinning electromagnets. This current could be passed through an arc to create light but all experiments so far had burnt out the carbon filament too soon to be of any use. Edison had to find a material that lasted much longer. After trying over 6,000 materials, he figured out that if he removed all oxygen from the bulb, the carbon stopped oxidizing and the filament lasted longer.

Having solved the lighting problem, Edison now needed an appropriate medium—one that offered more flexibility than Muybridge’s glass discs. George Eastman had recently repurposed a material called celluloid (that had been originally invented as a substitute for ivory billiard balls) for use in his new portable camera. Edison took a strip of celluloid, punched a series of small holes on the side of the strip and created the world’s first film strip. He ran that through a new machine of his invention that used his new carbon filament bulb for light and created the kinetoscope—the direct precursor to the modern film projector.

The reason for this long narrative is to illustrate how inventions come to be. The kinetoscope would not have been created had it not been for all the different devices that came before it, each of which had been designed for another use in an entirely different context. It took a polymath like Thomas Alva Edison to take those different inventions and combine them together into an idea so unique that it has spawned an entire industry that has survived (and flourished) to this day.

This is how all inventions are born. It is here, at the intersection of disciplines, that the green shoots of an idea become visible. Unfortunately they can only be seen by those who know how to straddle multiple worlds.

Edison is widely regarded the greatest inventor of modern times. When he died in October 1931, he had over a thousand patents to his name ,including such lasting inventions as the light bulb, the electricity generator, the phonograph and the kinetoscope. During his lifetime, he carefully cultivated the image of a lonely genius—but nothing could be further from the truth. Far from a solitary genius, Edison hardly ever worked alone. He had a huge laboratory of scientists, each a specialist in a different field, whose sole function was to serve the demands of Edison’s imagination. He made it a point to know and be friends with other inventors, engaging with them and understanding their inventions so that he could take the advances they had made and adapt them into new inventions of his own imagining. It is this perspicacity to see the connections that exist between different inventions and the ability to make great leaps across disciplines that made him the greatest inventor of the modern era.

I worry whether we will ever again have another inventor like Edison.

We have, today, become slaves to specialization and remain, more often than not, siloed within our own areas of expertise. Not only do we struggle to identify polymaths, it is becoming impossible for any single person to excel in more than one sub-discipline. As a consequence, innovation today comes about more by happenstance than design.

If we want to bring back a renaissance in innovation, we will need to break down the silos of our research and find ways to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. This will call for a fundamental re-design of the methodology we adopt for systematic research and a creative incentivization of non-traditional learning.

We will have to resist the urge to curb curiosity regardless of where it leads us. But, perhaps, most importantly we will need to change the way in which we currently impart education and develop, in young learners, the ability to make connections outside of their prescribed syllabus.