Engineers and inventors often mention that what inspires them is a problem without a good solution. Indeed, in this issue’s Engineering column, Henry Petroski describes how his own use of an unused ice-cube tray as an improvised pill organizer led him to investigate the features of more sophisticated pill containers.
But once invented, technologies seem to take on a whole new life, with their uses radiating into other fields when people see how an existing technology might be adapted to help with their own problems. Those who can envision ways to turn technologies to novel uses are innovators too.
For instance, lidar (light detection and ranging) was developed in the 1960s and found an early use in measuring clouds, but the technology gained more notice when it was used in the 1971 Apollo 15 mission to map the Moon’s surface. Today, as described in “Estimating Ancient Populations by Aerial Survey,” airborne lidar is being used in archaeology, to better assess the locations and sizes of ancient settlements, revising estimates of population in the New World before European contact.
Other adaptations reveal still more unforeseen uses of technologies originally developed to address different needs: High-powered microscopes that can help identify feather types have aided in preventing bird-airplane collisions (Technologue); quantum chemistry simulations can help direct reactions and improve medications (Perspective); artificial intelligence algorithms can independently create and title works of art (Arts Lab); and mathematical simulations can help researchers understand heart arrhythmias (Sightings). Even in the area of wildlife management, ubiquitous computing power makes it possible to crunch large data sets to determine the degree to which regulations are based on research (“Is Wildlife Conservation Policy Based In Science?”).
The fact that these innovative uses of technologies have gone beyond what their inventors initially envisioned is a testament to the incremental nature of science; we are reminded that inventions rarely spring from the inspiration of a single individual. In this issue’s Nightstand section is an excerpt of a history of computing that looks at the many people behind computing milestones, from the Jacquard loom to the trackball.
Indeed, nowhere is the myth of the lone inventor more examined in this issue than in “Random Paths to Frequency Hopping.” The article digs into the past of technologies that jump a signal across a range of frequencies to prevent eavesdropping. The legendary early Hollywood film star Hedy Lamarr copatented a technology in this area, and recently, popular internet memes have used this patent to credit her with invention of modern wireless technologies. Lamarr’s patent is a fascinating story in itself, and demonstrates that anyone with an interest in science and technology, no matter what their background, can make contributions to research. But the tale only benefits from being told honestly and in the context of the many inventions that both preceded and followed that work. It’s difficult to include that sort of context in a quick internet meme, but we hope that the fuller history inspires up-and-coming scientists. There’s still plenty of room to adapt and innovate, and great insights await.—Fenella Saunders (@fenellasaunders)