Inventions to Innovations
How Innovation Works

Inventions to Innovations

Award-winning author Matt Ridley explores the path inventions take to becoming innovations in this engaging exploration of the history of bold ideas.

Member of the UK House of Lords and award-winning author Matt Ridley also wrote The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge and How Prosperity Emerges, among other works. As he amply demonstrates, tracing the emergence of ideas and innovation is his metier.

In an early example, he notes that farmers learned to produce more wheat per acre by cross-breeding varieties of wheat. As they transferred cross-breeding to other crops as well, this innovation significantly increased food production and helped reduce famine worldwide. With this and other case studies, Ridley illustrates how innovation increases societal prosperity.

Ridley incarnates the archetype of the eccentric upper-class English intellectual as he investigates an arcane but surprisingly engaging process: how inventions become innovations. The author posits inventions as great ideas and innovations as great ideas that society embraces. Yet, he argues, few understand the factors that lead from one to the other. Ridley cites multiple examples throughout history to demonstrate the essential elements required for innovation to thrive.

Useful Inventions

Ridley states his case simply: When new ideas lead to new practices in people’s livesor change the way they work, inventions become innovations. For example, Ridley cites the light bulb, the internal combustion engineand social media.

Innovation happens when people are free to think, experiment and speculate. It happens when people can trade with each other. Matt Ridley

Innovations that make it, the author suggests, seem inevitable in retrospect. But, Ridley points out, people rarely envision the eventual effects of emerging ideas. Inventions become innovative when society needs them. The freedom to collaborate and share opinions, Ridley’s posits, nourishes environments conducive to innovation.

Persistence and Serendipity

Ridley lists typhoid, cholera,pertussis,polioand malaria as diseases that ravaged Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Innovations – leading to sewage treatment, community vaccination programs and treatment options – reduced or ended death from these diseases.

Serendipity plays a big part in innovation, which is why liberal economies, with their free-roving experimental opportunities, do so well. They give luck a chance. Matt Ridley

Among Ridley’s compelling examples are the scientists who found that mosquito netting soaked with the insecticide permethrin saved twice as many lives as anti-malarial drugs and insecticide sprays together. The author makes the case that luck plays a role in treatments of disease. He offers penicillin as an example; Alexander Fleming discovered that a fungus growing in his lab killed bacteria, thanks to the weather: periods of heat followed by cooler temperatures that spurred the growth of the fungus, penicillium.

Ridley raises the oft-made point that failure drives innovators to try again. Many consider failure necessary to find success. The author defaults to the hoary example of Thomas Edison, who tested more than 6,000 plant materials to find the right filament element for his light bulb.

The Mother of Invention

Ridley raises many examples of how need drove innovation. Among them is nitrogen. Farmers knew for centuries that nitrogen improved soil quality and crop production, yet early practices didn’t scale. The larger world didn’t benefit from this phenomenon until the invention of fertilizer. This along with other inventions – among them mechanization, new crops and genetic engineering – has allowed farmers to increase their yield so that fewer people go hungry or suffer from malnutrition despite the growing population on Earth. 

Ridley writes fascinatingly about numbers. Roman numerals, used throughout Europe through the 12th century, proved impractical.Christian monks used Arabic numbers to study mathematics, but the general population generally didn’t. The author discloses that the Italian merchant Leonardo of Pisa – also known as Fibonacci – recognized the commercial advantage of Arabic numbers. As Fibonacci introduced the sequence and the concept of zero to European civilization, he became the messenger of a revolutionary innovation.

Sometimes though, Ridley recognizes, invention precedes demand, as with wheeled luggage. The free exchange of ideas and less regulated environments foster innovation. Without exposure, Ridley laments, great ideas die.

Revolutionary Hindsight

Experts try to pinpoint the moment computers were invented: Some historians deem the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) developed in the 1940s as the first computer; some point to a machine built to tackle German codes, Colossus, built in 1943; others look further back to the Jacquard loom used in the textile industry as the prototype from which the modern computer hardware and software evolved. Several essential contributions – among them the work of early computer programmer and “mother of the software industry” Grace Hopper – coincided with computer hardware’s evolution.


There is nobody who deserves the accolade of the inventor of the computer. 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 where it can be argued that the computer came into existence.Matt Ridley


The murky origins of the computer exemplify, Ridley contends, how people often consider innovations revolutionary only in hindsight. Just like stone tools shifted humans from hunting to farming, and eventually changed how they ate and lived, the incremental changes early computers introduced look sweeping only from a historical point of view.

Hampering Innovation

In the 1500s, as coffee spread from Ethiopia, Ridley reports its ban in Turkey and Europe. Wine and beer producers opposed it, but so did doctors – and government officials and rulers who, Ridley discloses, disliked the gathering and gossiping of people in coffee shops. Innovations often meet with skepticism. For temporary examples consider social media or biotechnology. In each case, Ridley explains, leaders, legacy companies and advocacy groups raised safety concerns and instigated fear.

Innovation is the source of prosperity, and yet it is often unpopular. Matt Ridley

Ridley thinks that each generation sees advances in certain realms but not others. He notes that, for example, the last 50 years saw incredible innovation in communication, but not as much in transportation. The next 50 years, he believes, may see more advancement in biotechnology than in technology.

Charm and Knowledge

Ridley knows a great deal about a lot – history, politics, mathematics, computers, agriculture, cultural patterns and medicine. Yet he is never pedantic or dull. Your most consistent response to his pages is likely to be: “I didn’t know that!” Further, Ridley exhibits a rare understanding of how to link his disparate knowledge into a tapestry that provides an innovative and entertaining overview of history and its processes. And if this book appeals to you, you’ll benefit also from Ridley’s other works, cited above.

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