Innovation Is Random

A dramatic, and sad, example of how random innovation can be:

A blowtorch flame is barrelling onto its surface to no effect. The egg should have cracked apart within seconds under the blistering heat. Yet after a few minutes, McCann picks it up and holds it in his hand. “It only just feels warm,” he says. He cracks it open and out dribbles a runny yolk. “It hasn’t even begun to start cooking.” That was March 1990, and this remarkable demonstration on the British TV show Tomorrow’s World was about to transform [Maurice] Ward’s fortunes.

The egg itself was nothing special. Its extraordinary resistance to the blowtorch’s heat came from a thin layer of white material that Ward had daubed on its shell. An amateur inventor, … Ward had concocted the stuff with no scientific training and named it Starlite. … Subsequent tests in British and US government labs confirmed that it was the real thing. …

Over the next two decades, Ward made a handful of samples of his material, but always refused to reveal the recipe. Then, in May 2011, he died. … A former hairdresser, in the 1980s [Ward] reportedly ran a small plastics company in northern England. He was also an English eccentric with a white beard, a bow tie and a divergent mind. He told journalists he made some batches of Starlite on his kitchen table in a food processor. ..

Greenbury believes that Ward was never interested in the money. His thinks Ward wasn’t able to relinquish the role of expert. By passing on the responsibility for Starlite to trained scientists, Greenbury suggests, Ward would have lost this coveted status. (more)

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  • Robert Koslover

    Wow. If this is real, it would seem similar to the surprise-level of high-temperature superconductivity. I don’t have a subscription to New Scientist, but I found more info here. Overall, I find it difficult to believe that it is actually both real and yet remains unrevealed/unreproduced to this day, all due to the near-insanity of the inventor.

    • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

      I agree with the astonishment that it’s been known of for decades, yet still remains a secret. And for that matter, it isn’t at all clear why it was never commercialized. It seems that the inventor wanted to make money off of it, and the product itself seems like it ought to be quite valuable … and yet, there doesn’t seem any record of it being incorporated into any real products. Why not?

  • CPV`

    While innovation may have a random component, it typically occurs in communities of knowledge that have laid a foundation for it. These communities are now more democratic and disperse due to the internet, etc. The romantic self-educated crackpot with a great new idea may not be extinct, but he is on his way out.

  • ve

    Thomas Edison and other prolific inventors tend to innovate through deductive reasoning from established principles and inductive reasoning through trial and error (i.e. talent, education and hard work). I wouldn’t call that “random.”

  • Becky Hargrove

    What CPV wrote: “The romantic self-educated crackpot with a great new idea may not be extinct, but he is on the way out.”

    This is indeed what we all thought in the 20th century. It seemed that money could find every important contribution that actually mattered enough to include it as a part of progress. But alas, money is not as plentiful as knowledge and human skill. In fact, money has always randomly mined knowledge. We are only now discovering that our systems of knowledge capture, while mostly sufficient for the 20th century, are not substantial enough for the 21st, and will need complete revision in the years ahead for knowledge and technology to further enable progress.

    • V

      We are only now discovering that our systems of knowledge capture, while mostly sufficient for the 20th century, are not substantial enough for the 21st, and will need complete revision in the years ahead for knowledge and technology to further enable progress.

      That appears to be a quite bold statement. Can you elaborate?

  • http://expectedoptimism.blogspot.com/ Expected Optimism

    According to Wikipedia, it’s not that Ward “was never interested in the money.” In fact, he tried to sell it, but demanded 51% of the profits, and no one took him on it. The story is also less sad than implied, as he apparently passed the recipe on to his family before dying.

  • V

    Sounds like the typical snake-oil

  • IVV

    The secret to spontaneity is preparation.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I call “I notice that I am confused” on this one – it strikes me as remarkably similar in structure to what I recall reading about the Dean Drive as a kid, and I guess/predict that the reality is not as described in the article.