Importance of early pioneers in a field

You often hear about early pioneers in different fields that without them we wouldn’t have the later inventions or the field would look very different, but for which fields is this actually the case?

It seems to me that in many cases we would have something very similar, just a little bit later.

We would have planes, cameras etc., just a little bit later and invented by someone else.

One thing I think about is the iPhone. The stylish touch screen with no extra buttons (eventually) seemed drastic at the time, but I somehow feel we would eventually arrive at this design even without Apple. What do you think?

Well, for every invention, there must have been a first one, and if that hadn’t been the one we know of it’s rather obvious that at a certain point of scientific or industrial development, someone other would come up with it. That’s why numerous inventions were almost made simultaneously by different people throughout history.

How long is “a bit” later? There’s a whole history of giving up on a technology only to have some lone scientist (maybe even a crackpot) pick up the pieces years later and finding the one thing that made it work that predecessors had missed.

Electricity was a pretty well known phenomenon by 1800, but it took Volta to figure out how to combine plates of different metals to create an electrochemical reaction and invent the battery - which opened the door for pretty much every other invention that used electricity. It took more than 20 years for the researchers at Bell Labs to turn Lillennfeld’s theory into a working transistor. If Volta hadn’t thought Galvani’s theory was bunk, or Bell Labs hadn’t made a long-term commitment to Lillenfeld’s theory, who’s to say that anyone else would have gone down the same path.

My best counter example: Archimedes came very close to inventing calculus. It took well over a thousand years to catch up with him.

Lillennfeld described a field effect transistor, which could not be made at the time because semiconductor material could not be made pure enough. Shockly Bardeen and Brittain (sp?) at Bell Labs invented the junction transistor, an entirely different device.

This might be a different thread, but I wonder what calculus would have been used for, what practical application it would have served, in this era.

I don’t know very much about Archimedes, but maybe with calculus he could have come up with the laws of motion that Newton discovered much later.

Not sure it counts as a field changing invention but velcro was probably a one off. Not sure we’d have that today if it wasn’t invented.

But if you’re looking for an invention that truly changed its field, look no further than the plough.

Freud - Completely screwed up the field of psychology for the better part of a hundred years.

Areas, volumes, and centers of gravity of various geometric shapes.

Theres really no way to tell is there, because we don’t have an alternate timeline we can look at.

This isn’t an early pioneer, but Maurice Hilleman helped created 40 vaccines. Its possible had he not been born that they all would’ve been created anyway, but theres really no telling.

FWIW, anaesthetics were supposedly discovered by the Chinese about 2000 years ago, but the west only really discovered them 160 years ago.

Humans knew that certain foods prevented and cured scurvy as early as the 5th century, but that knowledge kept getting discovered and lost. It wasn’t widely accepted that this was a cure until the 20th century and the discovery of vitamin C.

Then you have the pioneers whose insights are either openly derided or simply lost for some time. Ignaz Semmelweis for the former, Gregor Mendel for the latter. (Sanitation - hand washing - in the medical field, and inheritable traits - genetics.)

On the other hand, when calculus was finally developed, both Newton and Leibniz developed it at the same time. The same thing happened with evolution by means of natural selection. Even though we remember Darwin as the person who developed the theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, his contemporary, was also developing the theory at the same time.

IIRC there’s numerous examples from the 19th and early 20th century. Tesla vs. Edison for generating electricity. Bell vs. Meuci vs. Reís for the telephone. Benz vs. Daimler vs. many others for the car. The list goes on.

What seems to be more important is the intellectual climate that was around in the 19th century when these major inventions and discoveries were occurring rather than the genius of any one inventor or scientist.

Everyone was working on the iPhone. The year before it was introduced, i saw a joke product, the iPodTreo. Being a joke, it was literally an iPod and a Treo duct-taped together, but a single, integrated gadget that played music and made phone calls and could deliver emails and web searches was obviously desirable.

And the “no extra buttons” was largely driven by cost. The all-electric interface is cheaper than manual buttons. There’s a reason that only the most expensive Kindle has manual buttons these days.

Yeah. The iPhone was a design variation, not an invention. It’s configuration was predictable based on previous Apple products and Jobs’ interface philosophy. The success of Apple marketing is notable, innovational in some ways, actually pioneering in the early days of PCs, but well established by the age of the iPhone.

Joseph Swan was working on the incandescent light bulb at the same time as Edison, and if Edison had dropped it he might have been hailed as the inventor.

Don’t think you’re getting away with this.

Schopenhauer (?) said something like “Talent hits the target no one else can hit. Genius hits the target no one else can see.”

I think for a lot of inventions, especially since the industrial revolution, there were generally several potential inventors working away at a problem, one of whom got there first. It’s rarer to have only one person who can even conceive that such and such would be a useful idea, or who thinks its possible, so that they truly invent something that is a complete surprise to everyone else.

This is because the following conditions will tend to create a “close race” of several people/groups competing to solve a problem:

A large base of well-educated people
Strong intellectual “web” transmitting ideas and knowledge so everyone is on an equal footing
Access to “R&D” funding be it public or private
Significant rewards clearly available to the problem-solver(s) - e.g. a clear market for indoor lighting, faster travel, stronger yet lighter materials etc - such that people who can turn theory to practice are well-incentivised to do so.

So once you’ve got capitalists using financiers to fund engineers/scientists building on the work of academics to create something for industrialists to sell to businesses or consumers, you’re going to find that:
The problems are well-defined
The cutting edge science is fairly widely known, as are the gaps to be filled in
The resources are available
And therefore “talent” is well motivated and shooting at a known target.

By contrast, absent these conditions it’s only “genius” who will be bothered about the problem, and only in relatively rare cases will they have the time and resource to focus on it. (Semmelweis being a great example here).

Gutenberg is an interesting example - I’m not saying he’s a genius and as we all know movable type already existed, but no-one, not even Gutenberg appreciated just what a difference printing would make. AIUI there wasn’t much interest when all that was offered was faster Bibles - it wasn’t until the press came to Venice and merchants discovered an insatiable demand for info about new trading opportunities that books started flying off the shelves. The target no-one knew was there, perhaps?

Very true, and everyone knows about Jobs but who remembers Carter?

Not sure it’s an invention, but using microwaves for cooking was discovered by accident and was unlikely to have been discovered by research paths.

Although microwaves are used in many technologies today, almost none of them deliberately use microwave heating. (I think there are some forms of cancer treatment that involve ‘burning’ cancer cells with microwaves).

The Widlar/Talbert circuit configuration allowed operational amplifiers to move from academic novelty to commercial commodity. Their approach was revolutionary and is still a standard of the industry.

It was not simply product development, like changing the buttons on a box. Without Widlar and Talbert the linear IC industry would be very different.