24 March 2015
A few years back I had an idea for a product. The conditions for having new ideas were perfect: a midsummer weekend getaway out to an island, plenty of time for games and other leisure activity, some good friends, plenty of sun, and a moderate amount of beer and wine. Like most good ideas, this one was a combination of existing elements, put together by some fooling around and a need that was begging for a good solution. It immediately struck a chord.
A couple of weeks after that weekend, I discussed the idea with some other friends with whom I had worked on some projects before. At that point, I had no particular intention to start building on the idea: after all, I and other people have plenty of ideas like that all the time, and ideas with no execution aren’t really worth much. But the idea was gaining traction among my friends: they were as excited as I had been on that sunny weekend getaway. A few days later I met up with one those friends again and we agreed on start working on that idea.
One morning shortly after agreeing on this, I was flabbergasted: an early-stage company from not too far where I was living had won a start-up competition with exactly the same idea. I mean, what the heck had just happened?
Later on I learned that what had happened was not only likely, but in fact inevitable. Let me explain why.
Often when we’ve come up with an idea, we tend to feel that it couldn't have come from any other place then our unique set of circumstances and our unique patterns of thought; this is also probably part of the reason why we are inclined to be protective and even secretive of the ideas that we’ve come up with. In that moment, the idea seems so precious.
However, the history of invention and thought is full of people coming up with the same ideas in isolation of each other and at almost exactly the same time. Philosophical thought took a big step forward around the sixth century BC in several locations: Thales in Greece, Pythagoras in Italy, Confucius in China, and Buddha in India are all examples of this. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection towards the end of the 1850s. The law of the conservation of energy in an isolated system was formulated ”exclusive” by four different scientists – Joule, Colding, Helmholz, and Thomson – all in 1874. Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both filed a patent application for the telephone on exactly the same day, 14 February 1876, after independently inventing the device. E=mc2 was formulated by Henri Poincaré in 1900, Olinto De Pretto in 1903, Albert Einstein in 1905, and Paul Langevin in 1906.
This tendency of several people coming up with the same idea in isolation of each other has been named as multiple discovery or simultaneous discovery. The fact that multiple discovery is so common hints at ideas and discoveries not being haphazard and born in a lucky moment, but, in fact, them being inevitable.
The mechanism behind this inevitableness is, in fact, a simple one: once all the components of an invention are laid out, it starts floating around in that intellectual climate for anyone to grasp and, consequently, becomes inevitable.
I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.
With technological progress simultaneous discovery is likely to become even more simultaneous: since ideas can now spread instantly throughout the globe to anyone with an internet access, there are more people sharing the same intellectual environment than ever before. This, in turn, means there are more people grasping for the next idea floating around.
Multiple discovery is not just likely, but inevitable, and with technological progress it is becoming more inevitable by the day.