“The greatest advances in human civilization have come when we recovered what we had lost: when we learned the lessons of history.” Winston Churchill


Remembering history. Should we? What good is it anyways? The past is the past. How relevant is a world where technology was so weak, so non-integrated? Think about merely seven years ago. The iPhone was five months old, Twitter was barely on the horizon, much of what we consider intrinsic in our daily lives today was not really present at all.

Many great innovators of the past have trumpeted a disdain for the study of history. Henry Ford said “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Napoleon said “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” So is a review of the past a worthy endeavor? Shouldn’t we be much more focused on the future? Would not the study of Mobility, Big Data, Cloud, Social Media and Clean Energy be a much wiser investment of our time?

This certainly seems the pattern in our schools. In a recent survey by Newsweek, 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights and 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. [1] And those are events of importance in our nation’s history. What about a student of technology? Why would it be important to dig into events such as the introduction of the Model A by Henry Ford in 1927 or the failure of IBM to react to Microsoft’s entry into the PC market in the early 1980’s?

The answer of course is decidedly yes and there are (at least) five reasons why:

There’s nothing new under the sun. Are you stuck for ideas? History is full of them. Become a student of history and see how previous inventors came up with their ideas. For example, you could read the story of young John Deere [2]. A blacksmith in Vermont, his bankruptcy forced him to move west to the frontier (Illinois!) to begin again where he set up shop as a general repairman and manufacturer of small tools. One of the biggest challenges for local farmers was that cast iron plows just didn’t work very well in the sticky prairie soil. They were constantly having to stop plowing to clean off their plows. Thinking back to his days in Vermont, Deere remembered well the manufacture of steel needles for leather makers and how polishing the steel allowed the needles to more easily penetrate the tough leather used to make saddles. Could he apply those same polishing principles to the manufacture of a plow? In fact, why not make the plow out of steel instead of cast iron? And why not polish the steel so that mud would simply slide off? This is exactly what he did and his invention transformed the work day for prairie farmers allowing their productivity to flourish and paving the way for America to become the world’s “bread basket.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Do you feel blocked? Does it seem the path forward, the road most people travel just simply doesn’t exist for you? Join the crowd of those whose future wasn’t formed through passion or inspiration, but necessity and determination and perseverance. Consider the example of Josiah Wedgwood [3] the youngest son of a potter in England in the 1700s. Having suffered an attack of small pox at the age of eleven, Josiah’s right knee was permanently damaged, leaving him unable to work the potter’s wheel. But instead of abandoning the trade, he decided to focus his time on researching the craft of pottery. Concentrating on the scientific advances of his day, he was able to revolutionize, not only the practice of creating high quality pottery, but the approach to mass producing it. In fact, his craftsmanship was of such beauty and quality he began receiving orders from the highest levels of English royalty, most notably Queen Charlotte herself. Because of his efficient approach to mass production and mass distribution, he was able to create a factory system, build assembly lines and lower the price enough to create the first real world consumer market. By the late 1700’s fine china had become a common place addition to homes throughout England and America.

Avoiding the same mistakes. This is a tough one obviously. If it were easy to avoid previous mistakes, we would always avoid them. But one of the ways we can recognize challenges ahead of time is to be a student of history. For example, why does it consistently seem to be true that “Dominant incumbent firms, long successful in an existing technology, are often much less successful in new technological eras.”[4] This seems counter-intuitive. Incumbent firms would appear to have the advantage. They have the knowledge, the resources, the size, the capital. Why would they simply not be able to more effectively and easily move to a new market and opportunity as they occur?  Two signature examples are IBM’s failure to capitalize on the personal computer market and Microsoft’s slow and late reaction to the widespread adoption of the Internet. Both Joseph Schumpeter and Clayton Christensen have much to say about this. Your understanding, your investigation of these and other historical examples could give you the ability to recognize when you’re in that same position and devise a sensible course of action.

History repeats itself. Yup, this is the one at least everyone seems to agree with. Yet typically people cite simple examples; like New Coke or the Edsel. That’s all well and good but how about a macro perspective on technological eras and understanding where in the cycle we stand? Carlota Perez’s important book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital” [5] posits that “economic growth since the end of the eighteenth century has indeed gone through five distinct stages, associated with five successive technological revolutions.” She holds that these revolutions occur roughly every fifty years and that there is a distinct sequence of events that occur in each: technological revolution – financial bubble – collapse – golden age – political unrest. (page 5) Sound familiar? The current era, “The Age of Information and Telecommunications” began in 1971 with the introduction of the Intel microprocessor. When will the next era begin and how can we prepare for it? According to Perez, “The favorable conditions for the next revolution are created when the potential of the previous one approaches exhaustion.” (page 27). Are we there yet? What is the fundamental signature revolutionary event of the next era? Was it the development of Amazon Web Services that has made computing power and information accessible cheaply, dynamically and ubiquitously? Or is it the popularization of funding platforms like KickStarter that is leading to a new industrialization? Or is it something yet unforeseen on the horizon? The key takeaway here is, preparing for what’s coming is equal parts understanding the current landscape of emerging technology and business as well as knowing the fundamental dynamics of technology and business from the past. The most prescient people are grounded in both the future and the past.

Believe the hype. Sometimes you just need to think about what’s possible. As Scott Berkun mentions in this talk [6], consider Thomas Edison. Did he invent the light bulb? Well, actually no. But everyone attributes that invention to him. Why? Think about the modern home in the late 1800’s. It had no electricity. There was no wiring to power lighting in the home. There were no power lines to pull electricity into the homes. There were no power plants to generate that electricity. Why do people give Edison credit for the light bulb? Because he perfected the system that made the light bulb a worthwhile invention. This was no easy task. He had to design an entire system that included sockets, fuses, switches, power meters and generators. Then there needed to be a huge capital build out including laying cables under the streets. Finally, the public needed to be convinced that electricity was safe. What are the parallels for today? The light bulb turned out to be the “killer app” that ushered in the golden age of appliances that changed the homes of the world. The light bulb was quickly followed by the electric fan, the electric iron and the electric toaster. Question: what will be the killer app for the “Internet of Things?”

It’s a huge challenge to predict the future. Are you driven to know how it will play out? Do you hope to play a part, perhaps provide innovation and direction in some small (or big) way that influences the future? Fortunately, history provides a guide. It’s a textbook of proven methods and practices that are laid out for you in striking detail. Get to know your fellow innovators from the past and you will have a wonderful guidebook to the role you can play in shaping the future.

 [1] Andrew Romano, “How Dumb Are We?” Newsweek (March 20, 2011),

[2] “Timeline.” John Deere. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

[3] “Josiah Wedgwood.” Spartacus Educational. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

[4] Bresnahan, Timothy, Shane Greenstein, and Rebecca Henderson. “Schumpeterian Competition and Diseconomies of Scope; Illustrations from the Histories of Microsoft and IBM.” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

[5] Perez, Carlota. Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003. Print.

 [6] Berkun, Scott. “The Myths of Innovation.” Speech. Web 2.0. San Francisco. Web.


About Jeff

Leads Teams to Deliver Enterprise Technology Solutions | Mobile | Cloud | HTML 5 | Big Data | mHealth | Gamification | Realtime Analytics | Augmented Reality
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