Killing off good ideas is a topic that came from writing the blogs on environmental issues last week. I included a comment at the end of two of those blogs, relating to the possibility that the innovative technology described could be bought by a large company, and killed. Large companies do this all the time to eliminate competition. One of my readers, and frequent commentator, suggested that this regressive process deserves a blog of its own. I totally agree, and here it is.
I remember looking at the prototype of a completely new concept in television, when I was a student at the University of Illinois in 1970. One of the University’s research departments had developed a TV screen that was a sandwich of two glass plates enclosing minute pockets of gas with cross gold wires running through those pockets. When electric current was put on the wires the gas lit up at the pocket where they crossed. I remember that the glass sandwich contained something like one thousand pockets of gas per inch. Properly programmed, this setup could produce a picture that was totally static. Cathode ray tubes, the standard TV technology at the time, relied on projecting particles against a screen, and that produced pictures that were not particularly stable. They could fade or slip. The glass sandwich concept, apart from its stability, could be made any size, from a few inches square to the side of a high-rise building. This innovative technology was bought by a large TV manufacturer (cathode ray type) and never saw the light of day again. Cathode ray TV continued to dominate the market for a considerable time afterwards. Killing off good ideas!
It is difficult to document these cases because, by definition, they are killed or buried before the general public become aware of them. However, we all suspect that many beneficial inventions have been eliminated in this way. It makes sense to the companies whose business stands to lose its market to a superior technology, but the loss to the rest of us could be substantial. The only thing that saves the company concerned from persecution, in these cases, is that we don’t know, or even suspect, that we have been duped.
Presumably, the researchers who come up with these new developments/technologies, are paid enough money, and wrapped up in sufficient legalese, to keep them quiet forever, or almost forever.
The question then becomes, how can we, as consumers, protect inventors and inventions against predatory, and rich, corporations?
The idea of patents first introduced the concept of protecting the inventor. The system works but, in reality, all it does is increase the price the corporations have to pay to acquire the invention.
The question really is, how can we control the avarice of the inventor? In a capitalistic society, that’s probably impossible. In the United States, it would probably be called un-American or even, god forbid, socialistic. However, killing off good ideas is hardly beneficial to society, so we should at least discuss the issue.
I have to wonder how many inventions, that would have benefited mankind, have disappeared in this way. Perhaps I can ask my readers if they know of any other examples.
If you do, I will be very happy to include them in a future blog, source identified if you wish. Who knows, we might be doing mankind a favor.