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I think this is a sneaky profound question with sneaky profound implications: Why did it take so long for people to invent obvious stuff? And, relatedly: what are the obvious things we’re not inventing?
“Why did we wait so long for the printing press?” Bacon, in 1620, points to this as a reason to hope that with more inventive effort, people could make technological progress:
48 replies and sub-replies as of Nov 17 2021

Obvious after the fact doesn't help when you're before the fact.
Because it’s the act of invention that makes something obvious!
This seems an obvious point...
ha, yes. i think maybe the more sophisticated version of my question is what kind of systems, mindsets, cultures, etc make certain ideas or inventions obvious to one group but not another equally or more intelligent group
I cannot tell you how many books business publishers have produced on this topic. Some of them are good!
According to a recent book, there is a solid (+) correlation of patents granted with alcohol use. I think it's this one: "Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization".
Reuseable packaging. Like leaving the mill jars out for the milkman to replace. But for more things.
Upside down ketchup bottles…why did it take until like 2015?
Why isn't every roof painted white?
It's a cultural acceptance thing, not technological. I feel many things are in this realm.
I feel like SpaceX's reusable rocket tech is a great example of a thing that should have been invented earlier but wasn't because of cost, imagination and the potent premise that advancing space tech ought only be NASA's domain.
right, what i'm really interested in is, like, how do we unlock obviousness?
Quite a question. My initial take is obviousness is dependent on necessity but also the pre-existence of things, to which Bacon refers. Unlocking obviousness is a talent I don't think we can democratize. The iPhone wasn't particularly obvious at the time, Jobs made it so.
My biggest question is bicycles! Why did that take so long?!
Somebody (@pseudoerasmus or maybe @antonhowes) had a long post on precisely this question.
My assumption was it had to do with the manufacture of tires and the necessity of smoother roads
One that I find strange took so long is rolling luggage.
Rolling luggage isn’t new. Rolling luggage that doesn’t fall over is new.
Here’s a Samsonite ad from 1978 emphasizing the wheels on their suitcase
wheel => wheeled luggage. As it happens, Kodak invented the wheel and screwed themselves out of the luggage industry, too.
incredible. 1970!
Is that strange? Air travel only became a mass phenomenon in the '50s/'60s. Why would there have been rolling suitcases before there were big airports and lots of people walking through them? That's basically the use case.
People used to walk everywhere. I guess horse shit would have been a problem Pre 1930 but still, 40 years to staple some wheels on is wild.
nah they're really about indoor use. A wheeled suitcase on a sidewalk for more than a block or two is a bad experience. they caught on because they're great in airports
Even that has been improved upon. 2 wheels on one side? Pah! Now it's 4 multi-directional wheels FTW. Easier to move 2 cases at the same time.
As someone who traveled a lot for international business I remember the first time I saw a Japanese businessman rolling one through the airport and I thought Eureka I need one
Probably all sorts of reasons the market wasn't ready until soon before rolling luggage was introduced. Less travel. Worse roads. Cheaper labor to have porters/servants carry the luggage. Costlier manufacture. Costlier repair of moving parts (people used to repair things).
I'll give you two. We need to hack garbage, i.e., the whole process of stuffing trash into a bag and pulling it out of the can and carrying it to the curb. It sucks! And Jetsons-style self-cooking ovens. You insert the ingredients, walk away and it does everything. You're welcome
You can get ovens now with optical sensors that recognize the food and cook appropriately, or even sous vide systems that keep the food refrigerated during the day and start cooking in time for dinner
Imagination to see old things in new ways is hard, as is overcoming high barriers to entry for new things (e.g., individually cast letters). "Obvious" also implies cultural acceptance; utility is what makes inventions successful.
Bc there is a world of difference btw an idea and its execution. I for one wouldn‘t even be able to make a decent stone axe, let alone a printing press
Feel like a lot of obvious stuff is delayed because its of limited utility prior to some less-obvious pre-cursor invention. The printing press isn't much good without paper-mills to provide cheap paper, for example,
Read somewhere that the printing press was dependent on an improvement in ink technology.
If you're asking a question like this, you are thinking about technological change in a naive way – the equivalent of doing US political history by focusing narrowly on presidential biography.
Stirrups! The Roman cavalry did not have them.
Tostitos scoops. In retrospect, OF COURSE making tortilla chips in the shape of a little bowl is a fantastic idea.
Inventions build on each other as discoveries build on each other.
this is a long debate in history of photography: no technical reason that it couldn’t have been invented for a century before 1839, and then click, two guys do it at once
This is a hard question on which much has been written, but it basically comes down to this: For much of history, the vast majority of people didn't view new technology as something that could improve their lives (individually or collectively) in practical ways.
IIRC early Americans often tried to invent things that existed in Europe in some form because they didn't know and/or frontier conditions were different. They knew they needed more but weren't starving or under siege. Maybe there's a safety/discomfort ratio that fuels invention?
If only they could make the clock in my high tech car reset itself to time changes......
I guess its probably hidden in things that don't happen often enough that you accept the inconvenience and don't think about it. But cumulatively the effects are big.
Beer was right on time.
Shower curtain attachments like this could have been invented in 1847
Self-folding washer/dryer combo. There is way too much time wasted on laundry.