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How old were the inventors of major inventions? (andolfatto.blogspot.com)
153 points by tosseraccount on April 16, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

Invention, creativity, and the benefits of invention are a topic for much exploration.

The 34 inventions mentioned are a small set -- that's just at the threshold of large-sample statistics for normally distributed data, and the datapoints here may well not bbe.

For a larger set of inventions, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China might provide an interesting basis. Under development for over half a century, the 27 volume work (several still in process) details thousands of years of innovation in China, in excruciating detail. The work's Wikipedia entry alone is staggering. Needham's biography has been written by Simon Winchester, and is highly recommended.

There are numerous books on innovation I recommend. There's What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelley and W. Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology both cover inventions and inventing.

Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016) looks at the era of invention and development since 1870. Gordon writes in great detail, but very readably, of the tranformation of the US landscape, cityscape, and suburbscape over this period, focusing especially on domestic living and lifestyle, transportation, food, medicine and health, work, communications, and entertainment. I've got disagreements with some of Gordon's economic thinking, but his history is solid.

That sample size is probably too small to faithfully break down things that far.

Really this is when people got lucky enough (or perhaps influential enough) to be attributed with an invention that is considered historically relevant.

I guess the real takeaway is just to keep trying to do great things

Absolutely. Very sketchy to try to draw any meaningful conclusions from this data.

Also, what about the people who invent/innovate on a smaller scale, which doesn't get recognized as much as these inventions but is in aggregate perhaps as significant? This analysis sort of rings bells of the "Great Man" theory of history.

As someone in my early 20s, I can say the young innovator myth also severely hurts the youth.

When you're told you need to achieve X by 30, you may end up destroying relationships, having health issues and depression.

Dave Cutler , legend and father of the NT kernel , who was on the front page of HN yesterday was born in 1942.

He joined Microsoft in 1988 , when he was 46 , to work on the NT kernel. No doubt he had a many brilliant achievements before that , but his greatest work came in his 40s. Something the youth obsessed programmers of today should remember.

Innovating at 20s or by 30 happens, but rarely. I believe, we should at least start working at innovating something at this age.

Agree! In my opinion your 20's should be for studying and exploring things on a higher level (university, etc.), your 30's for starting building your "systems" and master something so that in your 40's you should be well equipped to do real innovation.

Of course, some people may be faster and some slower..

Jeff Bezos agrees with you.

Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg do not.

Interestingly, of those, Bezos was the MBA manager, the rest were all programmers.

And of those who was a real inventor or innovator? I'm not talking about business innovation, but real and durable innovations.. After 100+ years of being invented, I still ride my bike every week, but I highly doubt that Amazon as shop, MSDOS, Google as search engine or Facebook will be used in 2200!

Great point, perhaps Elon Musk should chime in on this? #iwish


You never went to grad school, did you?

My favorite is when other tech people (investors, etc.) stare at you blankly after comments like, "A PhD is like a startup in many ways."

But with less monetary potential and more pointless nitpicking.

Also you need to waste a lot of time writing a thesis (I'm talking about the nitty-gritty process of coming up with the words and fighting TeX or worse, MS Word) that essentially is worth the paper it's printed on.

(well at least Campus life is better than sharing a flat with 3 other people with questionable hygiene habits)


I apologize for my snark. I would genuinely like to hear about your grad school experience. Maybe I'm the outlier.

But what if we can achieve X in early age without compromising anything?

Ten people believe if they go to college they will receive six-figure salaries upon graduation. Ten people take out six-figure student loans because hey it's a worthwhile investment. Upon graduating, four people receive six figure salaries.

There's a certain insanity to counting off risk because of something you think will happen. People seem to do it too much.

Sure, it's great if you can pull that off. But for a lot of people expecting they have to be a great success in an early age puts a lot of pressure on them and I think it impedes learning.

Which is why you should measure success based on what you put in rather than what you get out.

Ageism is an irrational pox on an industry that prides itself on being rational.

Younger people work longer hours for less pay. You can burn them out and cut them out of their fair share without mercy.

If you think it's about anything more than this, you don't know capitalism.

I get paid ~4 times as much but only work ~1/4th as much as I did 15 years ago primarily because I'm not foolish and 19 ... I'm unlikely to actually be 16 times more productive for being 16 times more expensive.

There is no such thing as a "fair share", you get what you negotiate. You are free to not accept any such contract if you are not content with it.

Or is anybody forcing you to accept this or that kind of work?

I think his point is that 19 year olds are much poorer negotiators, and that gets taken advantage of.

Who cares? They have the chance to learn to be better negotiators, which they'll hopefully be some day.

Do we need to handicap more experienced negotiators so that 19 year olds do better?

huh? how did I offend your unrealistic neoliberalist fantasies here? oh right! reality.

It makes sense though in an industry full of irrational and ephemeral products and services.

If you are trying to get in and get out you don't want experienced people who are going to ask a lot of questions. You want young, naive people who are willing to play the lottery.

My personal experience has been simply that hiring is hard, so young founders naturally lean towards hiring people they can relate with which of course happens to be fellow young people. It's laziness and ego disguised as pragmatism.

I don't attribute to malice what could equally be explained by ignorance. It's not deliberate ageism, it's the path of least resistance. I would agree that that path is a bad thing overall.

Tech people, scientists, atheists, libertarians, and the like are not actually more rational than other groups. These are just groups who have a practice of suppressing divergent epistemologies (ways of knowing).

Think about it, each one of these groups is primarily about not accepting divergent viewpoints:

Tech is about intelligent machines that can't empathize with anyone.

Science is about having one very strict epistemology (the scientific method) and pretending no other ways of knowing are used in the lab.

Atheism is about deciding all god beliefs are wrong even the ones you haven't heard about yet.

Libertarianism is about removing all forms of structural social coordination except contracts.

These are groups who have set up walls that help them ignore other people. Any sensation of "rationality" you get in these places is just calcification of ideology due to a strong program of stifling dissent.

If you want true rationality go look for communities where dissent is celebrated.

The policies for improving innovation are too simple and don't work. Simply increasing immigration of STEM workers, increasing STEM education and throwing money at the education department won't get people more educated. Have you met really intelligent engineers and scientist. The ones that make a difference are not in STEM for the money, they are in it because they are inspired and driven to research and invent. A culture of STEM needs to be created amongst people to push this type of agenda forward.

Idea that major inventions are by design is flawed; as such, any analysis of the age of an inventor's age when discovering an invention is useless in my opinion.

If you want to invent, do it.

If you want to discover a major invention, invent more often.

I would say that the inventor's age is undoubtedly related to the "quality" or impact of the invention and you give the response on your last sentence. They have iterated and "invented" more..

Why is having more data that may offer a different perspective or new insight useless?

No, my point is that "what is great" is random and not inherently reflected by what becomes mainstream. In fact, it's very possible that age influence the process due to younger inventors have less resources like capital, investors, network, etc.

It takes a long time to learn enough and accumulate enough experience to have a high chance of doing something new. Not saying you can't do it young since many obviously do, but this doesn't surprise me at all.

I also think that youthful rebellion is a bit of a myth. The youth often rebel how, against, and in the ways they are told to rebel by elder philosophers and polemicists. It also often takes a lifetime to genuinely critique your culture in a way that is truly incisive.

I think Tim Leary was joking about this with "don't trust anyone over 40." He was over 40.

Makes sense. Before 25 it's unlikely you can even see what's happening. You're kind of flailing around blind trying to learn all the words and figure out which "facts" presented to you are actually just stories.

Once you can see what's happening, you can start trying to solve a problem. It takes 10 years for you to get good at the basic skills. It's not that likely that your pre existing skills are the ones you'll need. Then the world changes while you're watching and now you have all the ingredients:

1) vision

2) skill

3) a head start

So 35 is sort of a bottom limit for some kinds of invention.

Of course there are exceptions. If you have skills in the family you can start learning them at 5. And some people are just born in the middle of the kerfuffle and can see what's going on at a very early age. That's where someone like Bob Dylan or Fiona Apple comes from, doing world class work at 16-17 years old.

And the Internet makes the first step of "seeing what's going on" much more accessible, for both young people and everyone else. so I would expect the curve to expand out quite a bit this century.

The skill training is really just about hours though so I don't think the Internet accelerates that much.

You should meet Ben Franklin, Galois, and Mozart.

No phonograph or light bulb on the original list? How odd.

Neither is the transistor, laser, integrated circuit, microscope (or indeed optional lenses), or many other very significant inventions. So it's really a sample, rather than a systematic coverage.

The point is, lots of inventions are not mentioned. This makes the sample size taken, too small. So, the conclusion made in this article might not be accurate.

The inventions mentioned by perlgeek and karmacondon don't change things much: transistor (Bardeen 39, Brattain 47); laser: (Townes 43, Shawlow 37); IC (Kilby 34); microscope (unknown). Telescope (Lippershey 38). Phonograph (Edison 30); light bulb (Swan 32). The mean is 37.5.

I thought I'd also see how my own, admittedly very minor, inventions (http://web.onetel.com/~hibou/Patents.html) fit into the pattern. Patents were filed when I was 32, 36, 36, 39, 44, and 55. So, 40.3, and that can only change upwards.

Arguably the first US patent for a transistor, specifically the field effect transistor, was awarded in 1926 to Julius Lilienfeld, though the invention was not implemented back then. The later developers of transistors (Shockley, et.al.) built model devices using the ideas in these patents though never referenced or credited Lilienfeld's work. However, the later work was taken in a different direction and avoided conflict with the earlier patents.

Lilienfeld went on to invent the electrolytic capacitor in 1931 when he was 51 years old. He was 44 years old when he patented the FET. This is very much in line with the other data.

But adding those will you get into the whole argument about whether Edison was an inventor or a relentless taker of other people's credit

Deciding who invented what is not always straightforward. The best you can do is give credit to whoever filed the patent first. Also, inventions don't often happen without the prior inventions which make them possible (lens -> telescope, thermionic valve + semiconductors -> transistor), and the social changes which make them inevitable.

There's a really great book, now out of print, called Tolstoy's Bicycle, which is an encyclopedia of the ages at which people achieved notability (not always success) The title comes from Tolstoy riding a bicycle for the first time age 67. Reading that, you'll see that success can come at any age.

"Mr. Marconi is a donkey" - Nikola Tesla

"Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents." - Tesla

I think this one is more illustrative of Tesla's character and the fact that he was not driven by financial motivations.

Well, except that Tesla didn't invent anything like the radio (the patent grant was considerably later, only in the US, and specifically to freeze out Marconi... who also didn't invent the thing). Marconi's apparatus was essentially an improvement to Oliver Lodge's demonstration machine for the BAAS memorial tribute to Hertz, largely done by the British Post Office telegraphy engineers, with eventual help from the inventions of Lodge (a tuning apparatus) and J. C. Bose. One could say that radio was accidentally invented by several people several times over the preceding century, notably by David Hughes, who at least tried to have the phenomenon investigated. It was dismissed at the time as mere magnetic induction, something Tesla assumed was the case as well, and so believed his cockamamie scheme for wireless remote power was radio. Being able to convince interested nationalist laymen that a foreigner didn't do it is not the same thing as actually inventing something yourself. (Several of Tesla's other "inventions" were created by other people before he was even born. The neon light, f'rinstance, is just a Geissler tube.)

Look: many, many props to the guy for the induction motor and polyphase AC, right, but he was rather in love with himself. He was an ingenious tinkerer with a subtle mind, but there are some very good reasons to believe that he didn't really understand half of what he was trying to do, especially at high frequencies. There's a reason why radio doesn't look like Wardenclyffe now, and never did. Oh, and no financial motivations? That's a wee myth grown out of his sale of patents to Westinghouse, without which arrangement AC would have failed (because the onerous royalties due Tesla would have made it too expensive compared to Edison's DC). He had no trouble begging for money while looking for further fame and fortune.

Edison wasn't either until he inadvertently found himself to be rich.

And the printing press was invented in China.

Robert Greene deftly handles the issue of age and genius in his book Mastery. I highly recommend it.

Interesting that they left Edison off the list.

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