Who invented the computer?

In How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley explains how and why innovation happens “when people are free to think, experiment, and speculate. It happens when people can trade with each other. It happens when people are relatively prosperous, not desperate. It is somewhat contagious. It needs investment. It generally happens in cities.”

Most innovation is a gradual process. It is also a team sport, as Ridley correctly suggests. Thomas Edison was eventually awarded 1,093 (singular or joint) patents for research and development of breakthrough innovations. At any time throughout a period of several decades (1870-1895), on average, 50-75 associates were also involved.

Who invented the computer? Ridley believes no one person deserves that accolade. However, “there is instead a regiment of people who made crucial contributions to a process that was so incremental and gradual, cross-fertilized and networked, that there is no moment or place that it can be argued that the computer came into existence, any more than there is a moment when a child becomes an adult.”

Ridley discusses several candidates — including the Jacquard loom, The Difference Engine, Manchester Mark 1,/Ferranti Mark 1/, Z3, EDVAC, ENIAC, Colossus — and he agrees with Alan Turing that “the idea of a general-purpose computer should perhaps be the thing we celebrate rather than an actual machine.”

Matt Ridley observes,”the striking thing about innovation is how mysterious it still is. No economist or social scientist can fully explain why innovation happens, let alone why it happens when and where it does. In this book I shall try to tackle this puzzle.”

Indeed he does. Bravo!

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom was published by Harper (May 2020).

I also highly recommend two other books: Jim McKelvey’s The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, published by Portfolio/Penguin (March 2020), and Alex Goryachev’s Fearless Innovation: Going Beyond the Buzzword to Continuously Drive Growth, Improve the Bottom Line, and Enact Change, published by Wiley (January 2020).


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