Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.9)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

The history of the glass harmonica provides important insights into the nature of the innovative process. Five aspects are particularly significant. 

Here is the third aspect:

Innovation is commonly incredibly slow and incremental. It can, however (given the right people, resources, culture and environment), become fast and transformational.

Analysing the evolution of the glass harmonica over a period of approximately 400 years highlights the following 6 things about the process of innovation, each of which supports the above statement:
  1. An often lengthy period of time can pass during which something is known about but not acted upon (or any actions go unrecorded and unacknowledged).
  2. The timing and conditions have to be right for an innovation to be developed, widely acknowledged and adopted.
  3. Individuals need to be encouraged to explore new ideas, and communities need to be created where these ideas can be shared and developed.
  4. At some stage, an individual or group of individuals will make a decisive and positive difference to an innovation, enabling its rapid development and encouraging its enthusiastic adoption.
  5. This individual or group of individuals will only emerge when the time and conditions are supportive, and they will only be able to make a positive difference if they are aware of and have good and ready access to the work of others.
  6. To become interested in and support new ideas and innovations, people need to have time and space for them.
Since the Renaissance, which began around 1350, it had been known that sliding wet fingers around the rim of a wine glass would produce an appealing and potentially musical sound. This knowledge was not acted upon in any significant or known way until the 1740's when an Irishman (Richard Pockrich) created the glass harp (a number of goblets, each filled with a precise amount of water to produce a specific tone) and gave its first public performances.

Over the following two decades, interest in the glass harp increased significantly. Christoph Willibald Gluck raised the instrument's profile in England by performing it during his visits there, and Edward Delaval (a Fellow of the Royal Society and colleague of Benjamin Franklin) improved the design of the instrument by enhancing the tuning of the glasses and increasing the ease with which they could be played.

Then, in 1761, Franklin saw and heard a performance of Delaval's new and improved glass harp and was inspired to invent a radically different instrument: one that could be played more efficiently and effectively (and musically) than its predecessor.

One year later, Franklin's new 'glass harmonica' was given its first public performance.

Almost non-existent and then slow, small-stepped evolution of an idea had transformed into rapid innovation within the space of one year.     

The above shows that the seeds of an innovative idea, even though identified, can lie apparently dormant for a great deal of time. Work may be done to develop them (it is unlikely that Richard Pockrich was the first person to put together and play some form of glass harp) but this work tends to be done out of sight and unrecorded until the time and conditions are right for an innovation's recorded and recognised development and public acknowledgement.    

For the seed ideas of the glass harmonica, and indeed many other innovations, the time and conditions that brought them recorded and recognised development and public acknowledgement occurred during the 'Age of Enlightenment'. This was a time that placed science and reason over tradition and superstition. Most crucially, it encouraged individuals to explore new ideas and facilitated the creation of communities and institutions where these ideas could be shared and developed.

For example, Edward Delaval was a member of the Royal Society (an institution created at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment to promote excellence in science). This institution and its philosophy encouraged Delaval to explore new ideas and innovations and one of these was the glass harp. He improved it, played it and shared his ideas about it. 

Then comes Franklin. Franklin was a genius, and the age he lived in (along with its enlightened institutions) offered him many opportunities to be in the right places at the right times and put his unique intelligence and skills to good practical use. He was an enlightenment 'X Factor' who identified and rapidly developed many new ideas and innovations, among them the glass harmonica.

It must be recognised, however, that Franklin could not have developed the glass harmonica (and most, if not all, of his other inventions and innovations) without knowledge of the work of others and others' willingness to share their ideas publicly. 

Lastly, the popularity of Franklin's glass harmonica provides one additional insight about successful inventions and innovations: people need the time to become interested. The Age of Enlightenment and the scientific and social advances it enabled gave an increasing number of the 18th century's population sufficient leisure time to pursue arts, hobbies and other interests not essential to immediate survival. Music was one of these things, so the glass harmonica would have been welcomed by an ever-growing audience. This raised the instrument's profile and encouraged its continued development (and increased the likelihood of it being adapted to new and imaginative uses).   

In short, innovation is commonly incredibly slow and incremental. It can, however (given the right people, resources, culture and environment), become fast and transformational.

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