Friday, June 12, 2009

Hazy Memories of Innovation

It was Henry Ford who asserted, "History is more or less bunk” to a newspaperman from the Chicago Tribune in 1916. Ford was urging people to live in the present and not to be hobbled by tradition or orthodoxy. Mr. Ford also unintentionally focused on another issue: our historical record of innovation is accidently hazy at best, and intentionally distorted at worst. In brief, the guys who “won,” e.g. created the most successful innovation, were often those who helped write the revisionist history of their innovation efforts. As Scott Berkun noted, “Just because dominant designs developed before we were born, or in fields so far from our own that we’re ignorant of their struggles, doesn’t mean their arrival was predictable, orderly, or even in our best interest. Yet, the dominant designs, the victors of any innovative pursuit, are the ones that get most of history’s positive attention.” Looking in the rear-view mirror can distort historical reality: “Much of the literature of the history of technology is colored by post hoc kinds of explanations—that is, explanations that account for the emergence of a technology based on the final effects that the technology has” (Friedel, 2007). James Utterback similarly discussed historical distortion: “The emergence of a dominant design is not necessarily predetermined, but is the result of the interplay between technical and market choices at any one time.” That history doesn’t have to be too lengthy to be blurred. As Steve Wozniak, inventor of the personal computer for Apple said, “That’s what’s been bothering me—the fact that no one has gotten the story straight about how I built the first computers at Apple and how I designed them, and what happened afterward.” The lesson to be learned is that, to be of value, tales of innovation should come from primary sources, be consistent with other verifiable historical records, and always be considered with a measure of doubt. As my grandmother used to say, “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.”

Dr. Gary Oster
Regent University
School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship


Innovation, historical record, innovation history, technological change


Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Cambridge: O’Reilly.
Friedel, R. (2007). A culture of improvement. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Utterback, J. (1996). Mastering the dynamics of innovation. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Wozniak, S. (2006). iWoz: Computer geek to cult icon. New York: Norton & Company.