Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When the Other Side Adopts "Your" Innovation First


Earlier this year Seth Shulman’s The Telephone Gambit was published. In it, Shulman suggests that Alexander Graham Bell had a sudden, remarkable leap of intuition in his invention of the telephone after visiting the patent office in Washington and seeing key elements of Elisha’s Gray’s (very similar) patent.

That got me to thinking about the May 2006 New Yorker article which suggested that Mark Zuckerberg may (have, might have, could have) stolen the idea for Facebook from his college friends. When Zuckerberg helped write some code for his dormmates one winter break and suddenly morphed from Harvard student to Harvard drop-out, bound for the West Coast, it sounded an awful lot like that same remarkable leap of inspiration that powered Alexander Graham Bell’s innovation. (Zuckerberg has since paid to make his problem go away.)

A few years ago I sat at a National Chamber of Commerce meeting in Washington, D.C. to talk about global product and trademark theft, and at the table were five major software companies, three of four major league sports, a half-dozen luxury goods manufacturers and the representative from a high-end automobile company who told me that there were knock-off firms in China capable of making every single part of his best-selling models.

It seems we know an awful lot about corporate, product and brand theft. We even read from time to time about corporate espionage, and know there are all kinds of sinister hacks traveling around the web, seeking to steal proprietary information.

Oh, and there’s that guy from Nigeria who will send you $1 million if you send him $10,000 first. (I read recently that there are almost 600 versions of this letter floating around.)

But, what about the other kind of theft, the kind where one side innovates, ignores or mismanages the innovation, and then watches the other side adopt it and take a commanding leadership position? This isn’t exactly innovation stolen. It’s more like innovation overlooked.

Usually at the price of great pain.

Michael Tougias and I wrote King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Lost Conflict, which was published in 2000. King Philip, whose Native American name was Metacom, was the son of Massasoit, and his namesake war was fought between New England’s English colonists and members of the Wampanoag, Narragansett and others Algonquian tribes in 1675 and 1676.

Writing the book was a labor of love, meaning that neither of the authors was able to use the royalties to acquire a ski chalet in Telluride. Still, it sold well (and still does today, thanks to Michael’s gift as a one-man marketing machine), and has led to numerous speaking engagements at bookstores, libraries, historical societies and schools.

Of those, schools are perhaps my favorite, especially when I get in front of an antsy group of second-graders and try to dazzle them with tales of King Philip’s various body parts. (For the scoop on Philip’s famous head and hand, you’ll have to read to the bottom of the article.) Inevitably, however, the question arises: “Did the Indians use bows and arrows to fight the colonists?”

The short answer is, yes, but only when they had to--which was not very often. And therein lies a story of innovation “overlooked” that rivals anything happening today in China or on the web.

Here’s some quick history. By 1500, and certainly at the time of King Philip’s War in 1675, the matchlock musket was used almost universally as the weapon of choice for the common foot soldier. The matchlock was the first mechanism—-really, a slow burning wick which dropped into a pan of gunpowder—-that allowed a solider to use both hands to aim his rifle.

It wasn’t elegant, and it often got wet and failed, but it served its purpose for two centuries.

Beginning about 1630, the flintlock was introduced to soldiers in Europe. The flintlock—a piece of flint released by a trigger causing a spark in a flash pan to ignite the gunpowder--is a much superior technology to the matchlock. Not only is it faster to reload, but it is more likely to actually fire the musket.

By the time of King Philip’s War the flintlock was a 50-year-old innovation. However, it is almost certain that the colonial farmer who would be called upon to fight the war in the forests of Massachusetts and Rhode Island owned a matchlock musket. Geared to farming and raising livestock, these yeoman farmers had no particular reason to move away from their matchlocks. So, on training days, when able-bodied men were forced to practice with their militia on the village green—standing together in a clump and firing “volleys”--matchlocks were undoubtedly the weapon of choice.

Now, consider the Native American. The English in New England tried very hard to keep their Indian friends from gaining access to muskets. But it was a practical impossibility. Not only were the English willing to sell or trade muskets to their Indian neighbors, but the French and Dutch ringing New England were also very willing to arm the natives.

It seems pretty clear to historians that the Native American, who often hunted for his meat, probably adopted and became proficient with flintlocks as soon as they became available in the colonies.

Thus, at the start of King Philip’s War, English farmer-soldiers with inferior matchlocks and poor shooting skills faced off against Native American marksmen who possessed superior European flintlocks.

Consequently, the first six months of King Philip’s War were essentially a rout for the Native Americans. It appeared at one point that the English might be pushed back to the Atlantic, pinned in their coastal towns like Boston.

The Indians simply took superior European technology and beat their European opponents over the head with it.

[There is an irony to this story, and subject for another post perhaps. At least one of the colonial commanders was happy that the natives had switched from bows and arrows to guns, because, to paraphrase, with bows and arrows they could get off five or six shots in the time it took to shoot one musket ball. And, once the musket was shot, the colonial soldiers knew exactly where to aim by looking for the smoke. How many times does the older, inferior technology hold advantages over the shiny new innovation?]

Now, jump ahead nearly three centuries to the 1950s. By this time, Swiss matchmakers had dominated the world’s watch markets for more than a century, with particular success in the prior two decades as much of the world’s watch industry has turned to wartime applications. In 1924 a number of Swiss firms had pooled their resources to form the Swiss Laboratory for Watchmaking Research (LSRH) and by WWII had introduced waterproof, shock resistant and automatically winding watches. Swiss firms stressed quality and beauty—essentially selling tiny, intricate, bejeweled mechanical machines—offered exclusively through jewelers and upscale retail.

In 1967, The Swiss Horological Electronic Center invented the first quartz wristwatch. The quartz crystal could be made to vibrate so precisely that its oscillations would drive a watch’s accuracy to seconds per year (vs. minutes per week for competing automatics). A better technology, right?

The problem, as Amy Glasmeier says in Manufacturing Time, was that “With the advent of the quartz technology, the romance of the watch evaporated. Now virtually anyone could make watches and find a market for them in the world economy.”

This was decidedly un-Swiss, who were loathe to develop their breakthrough technology. But it was just the recipe for an aggressive Japanese firm rapidly emerging from WWII.

In fact, by 1969, Seiko had duplicated the Swiss invention and launched the “Astron,” a serious blow to both Swiss and American watchmakers. By 1978, quartz watches overtook mechanical watches in popularity. From 1970 to 1984, the Swiss watch industry lost 60,000 jobs, while Swiss watch companies decreased from 1,600 to about 600.

Only in 1982, when the first Swatch prototypes were launched, did the Swiss watch industry begin its comeback.

Innovation invented and overlooked again—at great pain.

Needless to say, it just keeps happening. One of the great innovation heists in modern times occurred between Univac and IBM. Univac, credited with building the first computer, knew without question that its magnificent machine was designed for scientific work. When business folk showed an interest, in fact, Univac ignored them. Meanwhile, IBM had followed suit with a computer, this one designed for astronomical calculations. But, when business came knocking, IBM decided to send a salesman. By 1960 Univac still had the most advanced computer, but IBM owned the market.

Oh, and since you’ve been good and read this far, let me tell you about King Philip’s body parts: When Philip was shot and killed in a swamp in Bristol, Rhode Island, in June 1676, he was decapitated and his head sent to the Governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow, as a trophy of the war. Winslow had the head set on a pike on the major thoroughfare in Plymouth, and there it sat for (what we think) was at least 20 years. (That alone will give you some sense of the impact the war had in New England.)

Meanwhile, one of Philip’s hands was identifiable by a scar from a previous firearms accident. This “remarkable” hand was severed and given to Alderman, the man who shot Philip. Alderman preserved it in a bucket of rum and made his living after the war exhibiting the hand for a few pennies in taverns around New England.

Now, when your teacher tells you that you must write me a thank-you note, you can forget all about the interesting story of matchlocks and flintlocks and innovation overlooked and, like my young second-grade friends, write, “Dear Mr. Schultz: Thank you for telling us the story of King Philip’s really, really cool head and hand.”