.@vaclavsmil on the myth of the innovator hero

I admit that in the midst of the heavy media coverage following the death of Steve Jobs, I completely missed the news that Dennis Ritchie, the creator of C and co-creator of UNIX, also passed away a few days later. This article in The Atlantic informed me of that and reminded me of James Burke’s talk on connections and how one thing has links to numerous others; to wit, the article says that the ‘innovator hero’ is no longer as common as he used to be generations ago, and we fail to pay attention to the links between individual products and people that lead to important innovations.

The dazzling and oversimplified story about electronics goes like this: The transistor was discovered by scientists at Bell Labs in 1947, leading directly to integrated circuits, which in turn led straight to microprocessors whose development brought us microcomputers and ubiquitous cellphones.


The era of heroic inventions has been over for generations. A brilliant mind having a eureka moment could not create an Intel microprocessor containing a billion transistors any more than one person could dream up a Boeing 787 from scratch.

Vaclav Smil, author and professor at the University of Manitoba.

Also worth looking at: this exhibition that recently ended in Canada, of the link between innovation and tradition in Japan.

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