I find the history of technology fascinating. It’s especially satisfying because more than any other area of history I can see patterns repeated over and over again with relatively little change through time.
One of these trends is the ability of small, incremental innovations to lead to a discrete technological leap. When you take a broad perspective, the history of technology is rife with quantum leaps where a completely new technology explodes on the scene: guns completely replaced swords, cars replaced horse-drawn carts, petroleum and electricity replaced whale oil, barrels replaced amphorae, airplanes replace… not being able to fly without a balloon – the list could fill a book.
But when you zoom in to the past, or just look at current technology trends, it suddenly looks like everything is progressing only incrementally. Clearly, the incremental improvements have to lead to the discrete jumps, but how can that be?
My explanation (which might be totally wrong, but that’s what makes history fun to think about) is all about efficiency and tipping points. In my version of the story, changes are always small, but there are discrete ‘lines in the sand’ that make one technology more appealing than another, and once the line is crossed, focus shifts from one to another (or focus is given where it didn’t exist before.)
For example, look at whale oil and petroleum. People knew about petroleum and its combustibility long before it became the valuable resource it is today. It was instead cheaper to kill whales and drain the oil from a gland in their head so that it could be burned. (Really, who figures these things out?) That is, until whales became scarce enough that we reached a tipping point where it was cheaper to extract oil, at which point development of oil extraction/utilization technology took off. I’m sure there were many other factors that went into the shift as well.
These tipping points can occur because something gets more expensive, or because something gets cheaper/more efficient, or because some other technology hit its own tipping point. Regardless, they are very hard to see when you are zoomed in – that’s why the people who do recognize them as they’re happening (or get lucky and then claim they recognized them) tend to become very rich.