How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley

What do Marcellin Jobard, William Robert Grove, Frederick de Moleyns and Alexander Lodygin have in common with Thomas Edison? The answer is that they all have a credible claim to have invented the lightbulb. Then again, so do 16 other people.

When we think about inventors and invention we tend to picture the lone genius sitting in their laboratory — or under the apple tree, or in the bath. Suddenly, there is a moment of inspiration, or just a happy accident, and the world is changed for ever.

Take the story of penicillin. In 1928 Alexander Fleming goes on holiday for the summer, leaving a culture of a bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus in his London lab. A floating spore of Penicillium happens to drop on to the plate. When Fleming returns he finds a circular patch where the bacteria had been prevented from growing. Cue the invention of antibiotics and the saving of millions of lives.

Innovation vs. Invention

Yet as Matt Ridley shows in How Innovation Works, such eureka moments are vanishingly rare — and even when they occur they don’t matter that much. What really changes the world, he argues, is innovation rather than invention; the painstaking trial-and-error work of discovery, adaptation and improvement that slowly turns an idea into a fact.

In other words, this is a book that celebrates Carl Bosch rather than Fritz Haber; not the academic who worked out how to turn nitrogen into fertiliser, but the businessman who poured enormous resources into making the reaction happen in the factory rather than the laboratory, a process that required assembling the largest engineering team until the Manhattan Project 30 years later and trying more than 20,000 possible variations, in addition to solving a host of other formidable practical challenges.

Edison is a hero to Ridley not because he was one of many to send current through a filament, but because of the hard yards his team put in to test thousands of possible materials until they settled on carbonised bamboo. Even Fleming’s “mould juice” took more than a decade, and the work of another team of researchers, to become a product, treating its first patient, a 43-year-old policeman called Albert Alexander, in February 1941.

Edison is a hero not because he was one of many to send current through a filament, but because of the hard yards his team put in.

If this makes How Innovation Works sound joyless, nothing could be farther from the truth. Ridley — as readers of his Times columns will be aware — is a writer enraptured by progress, one of the New Optimists who make the unfashionable case that life really is getting better, give or take the occasional pandemic, and that we have capitalism and innovation to thank. It is, as he acknowledges here, in the blood; his family were among the first customers for Thomas Newcomen’s steam engines, which fired the starting pistol for the industrial age.

The bulk of this fascinating book, then, is devoted to a gallop through the glories of the past as Ridley explains how we came up with everything from inoculation to U-bends to artificial intelligence. We learn that corrugated iron was once so fashionable that Prince Albert made a ballroom out of it at Balmoral; that the Smithsonian Institution tampered with a rival failed prototype to claim it was the first plane capable of manned flight in an underhand attempt to write the Wright brothers out of history; that close to ten million defecations take place in London every day; and that there really was someone called the Honourable Clotworthy Skeffington (the intended husband of the public health pioneer Mary Wortley Montagu).

Facts and Figures

Many of the people here deserve to be celebrated. Newcomen, for obvious reasons. Malcom McLean, whose introduction of containerisation slashed freight costs overnight in 1956 from $5.83 to $0.16 a ton, accidentally starting the Asian trade boom. Norman Borlaug, who doubled Mexico’s grain harvest in three years in the 1950s and did the same to India. Charles Algernon Parsons, who demonstrated the superiority of his design for ships by gatecrashing Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations, weaving his nippy little steam craft Turbinia through the assembled battleships of the Royal Navy.

Yet as Ridley also shows, all of them drew hugely on others’ work and ideas, and spent years refining their own. In virtually every case the concepts concerned were already on the technological slipway. If Otto Frederick Rohwedder hadn’t worked out how to mass-produce sliced bread in the little town of Chillicothe, Missouri — the secret was in the packaging, apparently — someone else would have done it soon enough. If Watson and Crick (and Rosalind Franklin) hadn’t discovered the structure of DNA, it would have been Astbury and Beighton, or Wilkins and Gosling. Indeed, Astbury and Beighton had the key evidence a year before their Cambridge rivals, but didn’t realise what they were looking at.

Yet while Ridley’s book is primarily about the past, his underlying thesis is very much about the present. “Innovation,” he argues, “is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood.” It is the secret sauce of human progress. In 1880 a minute’s work would buy you, on average, four minutes of artificial light. By 1950 it was up to seven hours. By 2000 the figure was 17 times higher. Thanks to innovation, America’s farms use 25 per cent less fertiliser and 22 per cent less water than at their peak, yet are more productive than ever.

Ridley is one of the New Optimists who make the unfashionable case that life really is getting better, give or take the occasional pandemic.

So working out how innovation happens, and how to generate more of it, is crucially important. And that means the villains of this book are not so much the fakes, fraudsters and hype merchants — although regarding the latter there is a bravura demolition of the physics behind Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop transit system — as the forces of reaction. Ridley is scornful of the government regulators who denied AT&T permission to set up a cellular phone service in 1947 because they couldn’t see the need, and of the patent systems that do far more to retard innovation than reward it. (One startling statistic from the book: outside chemistry and pharmaceuticals, four times more is spent on patent litigation than is received by patent holders.)

Ridley is also deeply sceptical about the role of government. Rebutting the recent left-wing hypothesis that an entrepreneurial state is the secret to innovation, he cites a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showing that research and development spending by businesses drives growth, but spending by governments doesn’t. Trying to create innovation by top-down fiat, he says, is “an essentially creationist approach to an essentially evolutionary phenomenon”. Of Europe’s 100 most valuable companies, he points out, not one was formed in the past 40 years, a period that coincided with the EU embracing a stultifying hostility to innovations ranging from GMO crops to bagless vacuum cleaners.

“Innovation happens,” Ridley concludes, “when people are free to think, experiment and speculate. It happens when people can trade with each other. It happens when people are relatively prosperous, not desperate. It is somewhat contagious. It needs investment. It generally happens in cities.” It is gradual, not sudden. It involves multiple wrong turns and an awful lot more perspiration than inspiration. And we’d all be better off if there were a great deal more of it.