The Pace of Economic Evolution

The pace of economic evolution is slow. Shockingly slow. Here are some examples:

The Difference Engine:

Invented: 1823 by Charles Babbage

First Built: 1998 by the London Science Museum

First Sold: Never


Invented & Prototype Built: 1938 by Chester Carlson

First commercial prototype: 1948 by Haloid (who licensed the patent from Carlson)

First Sold: 1949, but only in very small volume until 1959

Computer Mouse

Invented and Demo’d: 1968 by Doug Engelbart

First Commercial Prototype: 1974 by Xerox

First Sold: 1981 with the Xerox Star PC

Revolutionary new ideas seem like they come out of nowhere. However, as these examples show, even in the fast-moving technology world, the pace of this change is pretty slow. Incredibly slow.

This again illustrates the importance of executing ideas. There are enormous differences between having a great idea, and making it into something that actually works. Part of this involves leaping technological hurdles, and part of it involves devising a workable business model.

The delays also reflect the difficulty of diffusing new ideas, even when they are demonstrably better than the ones that they are replacing. Part of this is due to the difficulty of breaking existing connections within value networks, and part of this is due to the natural reluctance that many people have to take up new ideas.

This is true not just of new products, but also of new services and even new ways of doing things. All of these are really embodiments of new ideas. As innovators our number one challenge is to get our ideas to spread. This is true no matter what our role is, no matter what field we’re in.

So the next time you feel discouraged because your ideas aren’t picked up quickly enough, just remember the Difference Engine, the photocopier and the mouse. All great ideas, and all of them took a long time to get executed. We just have to keep at it.


Difference Engine: Electronics Weekly

Chester Carlson and his photocopier: Wired

Engelbart’s Mouse: techgossip

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “The Pace of Economic Evolution

  1. Tim,

    thank you for raising an important issue here: “Spreading the idea” doesn’t only include getting an idea promoted and executed, but also bringing it successfully to the market.

    Also from my own experience I know that it’s challenging to select the right ideas for products, processes etc. But just as demanding it is to keep the execution/development “on track” by overcoming technology, communication and collaboration roadblocks.
    As “time-to-money” is getting increasingly important for innovation success, it’s one of the major tasks for innovation management to keep this span as short as possible.

    I’m pretty sure that managing the entire innovation process in a proper way is more and more going to serve as a competitive advantage for companies. This implies
    – “doing the right things”, i.e. selecting the right ideas and
    – “doing the things right”, i.e. efficiently diffusing selected ideas into organization and market.

    In this regard it’s indicated to look into and understand crucial parts of the process, such as idea selection, breaking connections within the value network or resistance against new ideas. The overall optimization of the innovation process is critical for commercial success – and that’s what distinguishes an innovation from an idea!

    Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts.


  2. All very good points Ralph. I think you’re exactly correct about the importance of managing innovation all the way through the process.

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