Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Franklin and the Hydrogen Balloon

Benjamin Franklin, having observed the first manned hydrogen balloon flight: "Someone asked me--what's the use of a balloon?  I replied--what's the use of a newborn baby?"*

Franklin's foresight is astounding.  Successful innovations take two things: an original, compelling and and effective breakthrough, and an environment populated by a sufficient number of people who realize that something is a breakthrough (or, at minimum, by a few people of sufficient stature to convince the public).  Successful innovations are also much easier to see in hindsight.  Franklin was able to see and discern the significance of something as superficially frivolous as a hot-air balloon.  I wonder what innovations--and which insightful observers--will characterize the technological history of our age?

* quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (NY: Pantheon, 2008), p. 132.

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