The necessity of inventions

Over on Facebook, and friends have been pondering the provenance of Invention is the mother of necessity. Writes Don, “… heard that once from Doc Searls – I think its an original. Seems more true everyday. (think facebook, smartphones, the internet, computers).” So I responded,

Back in the ’80s, I had a half-serious list of aphorisms I called “Searls’ Laws.” The first was “Logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions casts the deciding votes.” The second was, “Invention is the mother of necessity.”

There were others, but I forget them right now. One, from my high school roommate (now the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem, PA — who blogs, in a fashion, here), was “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be eaten.” He was sixteen when he said that.

Anyway, one day I laid my second law on the CEO of our ad agency’s top client at the time, a company called Racal-Vadic. The CEO was Kim Maxwell, who taught at Stanford before kicking ass in business, and has since moved on to other things.) He replied, “Ah, yes. Thorstein Veblen.”

I thought, wtf? So I looked it up, and sure enough, Thorstein Veblen uttered “Invention is the mother of necessity” about a century before I made it one of my laws.

Anyway, my point in using it remained the same: Silicon Valley was built on inventions that mother necessity (from ICs to iPhones) at least as much as it was built on necessities that mother invention.

Just thought I’d share that out here in the un-silo’d non-F’book world.

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  1. David’s avatar

    Thanks! I might have to read the Theory of the Leisure Class.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Go for it. I’ve tried, but moved on to other things.

  3. Alan Paull’s avatar

    Humans are not necessarily inventive. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years with basically one tool: the simple hand axe.

    What drives invention is disposable income. So a better saying might be: “Money is the mother of invention” or even better “Excess cash is the mother of useless junk”.

    I think you need a better definition of ‘necessity’ and ‘invention’. Sounds like ‘necessity = progress’ – I don’t buy either of them (as a historian). Such things are not simple cause and effect in my experience.

    I think the hand axe example is pertinent – why did we spend hundreds of thousands of years basically *not* inventing anything? A millenium ago why did the Chinese not continue to invent things when they were streaks ahead of the barbarous West?

  4. Seo Warrior’s avatar

    I think necessity=progress. We have less and less time to do things and it is through necessity that we have invented time saving devices.

    As humans we want to do things better, quiker and faster.

    Great post!!!

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