Skip to comments.Why You Never Hear About World-Altering Inventions Created by Committee
Posted on 03/01/2012 3:43:42 PM PST by James C. Bennett
Modern corporate culture is in L-O-V-E, love with meetings (and any opportunity to engage in groupthink). But if you look back, history's real intellectual heavyweights weren't "team players." Intellectual giants like DaVinci, Einstein, and even Steve Wozniak, all developed their best works in near solitude. Quiet, by Susan Cain, examines why the world's best thinkers have usually been lone wolves.
March 5, 1975. A cold and drizzly evening in Menlo Park, California. Thirty unprepossessing-looking engineers gather in the garage of an unemployed colleague named Gordon French. They call themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, and this is their first meeting. Their mission: to make computers accessible to regular people-no small task at a time when most computers are temperamental SUV-sized machines that only universities and corporations can afford.
The garage is drafty, but the engineers leave the doors open to the damp night air so people can wander inside. In walks an uncertain young man of twenty-four, a calculator designer for Hewlett-Packard. Serious and bespectacled, he has shoulder-length hair and a brown beard. He takes a chair and listens quietly as the others marvel over a new build-it- yourself computer called the Altair 8800, which recently made the cover of Popular Electronics. The Altair isn't a true personal computer; it's hard to use, and appeals only to the type of person who shows up at a garage on a rainy Wednesday night to talk about microchips. But it's an important first step.
The young man, whose name is Stephen Wozniak, is thrilled to hear of the Altair. He's been obsessed with electronics since the age of three. When he was eleven he came across a magazine article about the first computer, the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, and ever since, his dream has been to build a machine so small and easy to use that you could keep it at home. And now, inside this garage, here is news that The Dreamhe thinks of it with capital lettersmight one day materialize.
As he'll later recall in his memoir, iWoz, where most of this story appears, Wozniak is also excited to be surrounded by kindred spirits. To the Homebrew crowd, computers are a tool for social justice, and he feels the same way. Not that he talks to anyone at this first meeting-he's way too shy for that. But that night he goes home and sketches his first design for a personal computer, with a keyboard and a screen just like the kind we use today. Three months later he builds a prototype of that machine. And ten months after that, he and Steve Jobs cofound Apple Computer.
Today Steve Wozniak is a revered figure in Silicon Valley-there's a street in San Jose, California, named Woz's Way-and is sometimes called the nerd soul of Apple. He has learned over time to open up and speak publicly, even appearing as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, where he displayed an endearing mixture of stiffness and good cheer. I once saw Wozniak speak at a bookstore in New York City. A standing-room-only crowd showed up bearing their 1970s Apple operating manuals, in honor of all that he had done for them.
But the credit is not Wozniak's alone; it also belongs to Homebrew. Wozniak identifies that first meeting as the beginning of the computer revolution and one of the most important nights of his life. So if you wanted to replicate the conditions that made Woz so productive, you might point to Homebrew, with its collection of like-minded souls. You might decide that Wozniak's achievement was a shining example of the collaborative approach to creativity. You might conclude that people who hope to be innovative should work in highly social workplaces.
And you might be wrong.
Consider what Wozniak did right after the meeting in Menlo Park. Did he huddle with fellow club members to work on computer design? No. (Although he did keep attending the meetings, every other Wednesday.) Did he seek out a big, open office space full of cheerful pandemonium in which ideas would cross-pollinate? No. When you read his account of his work process on that first PC, the most striking thing is that he was always by himself.
Wozniak did most of the work inside his cubicle at Hewlett-Packard. He'd arrive around 6:30 a.m. and, alone in the early morning, read engineering magazines, study chip manuals, and prepare designs in his head. After work, he'd go home, make a quick spaghetti or TV dinner, then drive back to the office and work late into the night. He describes this period of quiet midnights and solitary sunrises as "the biggest high ever." His efforts paid off on the night of June 29, 1975, at around 10:00 p.m., when Woz finished building a prototype of his machine. He hit a few keys on the keyboard-and letters appeared on the screen in front of him. It was the sort of breakthrough moment that most of us can only dream of. And he was alone when it happened.
Copyright © 2012 by Susan Cain. From the book QUIET: The Power Of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
The deeper commentary is actually about the power of the individual.
How about the atomic bomb?
” a camel is a horse designed by committee !”
Yes, they do like meetings, that’s were I get to explain why I’m not accomplishing anything, but got to keep it short, I’ve got a conference call coming up.
I see it everyday :(
Corporate meetings aren’t about making decisions, they’re about diffusing blame. I’ve never attended one where the outcome wasn’t known in advance, the only reason for showing up was to collect CYA material.
I always thought it was funny when someones cell phone rang in a meeting and all the engineers would look (hopefully) at their phones. The winner would get an exit ticket.
We have things called “steering committees” that should be called “braking committees”.
Or the necessity of the individual... Genius doesn’t happen in groups, and it doesn’t happen according to a central plan. Take energy issues for example. I am not the least bit worried about “our energy future”. Sure, some day we will have any number of alternatives to oil and at least one really good one. But the power of innovation is not magic to be summoned at will. No one can regulate technology into existence. No law can demand the next scientific breakthrough. It is free people, free minds and markets for their ideas that are the incubator of innovation.
Markets are always hungry for more efficiency, more power, more effective ways of doing things. Innovators even now are developing incredible new things all around us. New materials, new fuels, new processes are always bubbling up and finding their place. Left alone, resources naturally find their way to their most effective use. Markets reward success and inspire more of it.
The central planners and the committees will always get it wrong. They waste scarce resources and time and reward failure.
Am I wrong or did the founding of this country come about by committee? Seem to remember there were multiple signatures at the end of the final document.
An old saying fits this very well.
“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
That's an interesting case. Though, I suppose it wasn't really the Manhattan project group that -invented- it. The idea and the theory had been discussed among physicists for some time already. Actually building one was a complex project that required lots of resources. I'm not really sure who -first- realized that it might be done, but it had to have started with someone that first concieved it.
It was a good idea that spread.
I thought it was Einstein who figured out that a bomb could be a theoretical possibility, and then wrote to the US president of the time warning that the Germans could have it if America didn’t initiate a programme...
LOL, I have my cell set to speed dial itself, just for such occasions.
Hmmmm ... I see more than one "Mr. Wright".
Both the Declaration of Independence (on which I just finished a very interesting book) and the Constitution were most definitely the work of committees.
Another example of an amazing work produced by committee is the King James Bible.
Well, c’mon... We don’t have to push -every- truism to the limits. :-)
Did Hewlitt Packard get a piece of Wozniak’s patent? If not, they should have if he was using their office and their resources to develop his invention.
Hmmmm - I see someone who doesn’t get the humor.
Seems like I remember that he did offer it to them and they turned it down.
THe reason I ask is that nearly every engineer, working for a large company, signs an agreement that anything they invent while working theiri belongs to the company. The engineer gets the patent in his name and usually a small stipend. The company gets the rights. I know this because my husband has about 10 patents with 2 different companies (long since expired). His father had about 23.
I always thought it was unfair that the company got all the money and glory (about a billion $$$ for one of them) while my husband got about $100 for each patent and $50 for those he shared. But, he explained that it is fair because they paid him for all the months he spent not inventing anything.
Actually, Thomas Jefferson wrote much of the draft of the Declaration of Independence all by his lonesome. James Madison drafted up the Constitution from his notes from the Constitutional Conventions, along with his previous work helping with Virginia’s Constitution.
Government by definition is not a solo effort, but almost always the best of government is created by those who don’t spend a lot of time in meetings.
“Meetings are where minutes are taken, and hours are lost.” :)
R: My point is that even the supposedly solitary inventors we like to celebrate for their supposed rugged individuality do not work in a vacuum.
Orville/Wilbur would have been nothing without Wilbur/Orville.
Wozniak was brilliant ... but he was nothing without the folks who designed and built the various CPU, RAM, and other logic chips; CRT monitor; etc. that he assembled to build his first computer.
Shoulders of Giants.