Innovation Sometimes Requires Old Ideas

Innovation sometimes requires old ideas
Innovation sometimes requires old ideas

I was at an antiques event a few weeks ago and stumbled across this unusual “Triumphator”. I’ve always been fascinated by calculating machines – especially the tremendously intricate examples of the early 20th century.

These elaborate mechanisms, crammed with great ingenuity into a restricted space, have long since given way to the modern electric calculators that we are more familiar with today.

Woodworm, cogs and accounts

This particular specimen is a little tired cosmetically, and the base has been home at some point to a family of woodworm. But the machine itself is still in perfect working order, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to negotiate a price.

The unit weighs in at 15lbs. Every part of the internal space is full of interlocking cogs and pinwheels. It’s quite an absorbing experience to turn the various cranks, and to watch the machine multiplying or dividing to 13 significant digits. (I know, that’s not everyone’s idea of fun…) There’s even a loud bell that rings when the output display “overflows”, warning you that there are not enough digits available.

Based on my research into the model and serial number, this example dates to just after the First World War. In its time, the Triumphator must have been a leading business efficiency tool. Almost 100 years ago somebody may have used this very machine to calculate their company’s monthly accounts.

From accounting to cryptanalysis

Just thirty years later, Alan Turing was designing room-sized computing machines (e.g. the Bombe) to break the Enigma codes. Remarkably, Turing detected weaknesses in the Enigma machine’s output, and successfully reverse-engineered the mechanism. He did this without ever having seen one of the actual machines – at least not in the early phases of the war.

As it turned out, Enigma was based on a pinwheel design similar in many respects to the internal workings of this Triumphator (albeit combined with complex electronic circuitry).

The long heritage of Information Technology

As an Information Technology professional (and a one-time software developer), I often reflect on what has changed in our industry in the last 100 years. How much of this change would have been impossible without the innovation and ingenuity of the people who designed machines like the Triumphator, Enigma and the Bombe. Of course we should not forget Pascal and Babbage, who created some of the earliest mechanical calculators, starting as long ago as the 17th century.

As Newton said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”. (In fact he pinched it from Bernard of Chartres. This 12th-century was the first to recognise that innovation sometimes requires old ideas.)

Most of the technology that we use today relies on principles that go back far earlier than the 20th century. Even leading-edge software leverages mathematical or philosophical concepts that took shape hundreds of years ago. In today’s markets that are greedy for the new, it is all too easy to lose sight of the old.

Innovation and change

This Triumphator now sits on my writing-desk. It is my reminder that innovation sometimes requires old ideas to be used in new ways. It is not always about inventing new concepts. Recognising what not to change can sometimes be the key to success.

Does your activity involve innovation, either as an entrepreneur or within your industry? If these comments resonate with you (or not!) then please feel free to comment.

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