Gauss Ventures
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Gauss Ventures

A Gauss Lens: learning from the past innovation cycles

A case of inventions scaled by management practices as a reaction to a “shift”.

We live and often confuse ourselves by the marvels of how fast information can be retrieved, processed and presented today, as if that only today we shall experience the fastest ever progress during the course of human history. Where some economists, like Robert Gordon, note on decreasing real growth, others like Joel Mokyr or Alexander J. Field counter the pessimism, expecting for a gear-switch to happen.

In general, systemic shifts catalyse the underlying inventions, born out of singular breakthroughs of human genius or game of chance, and propel them to mass adoption, while equally, through diminishing cost of access and utilitarian gain, instilling new norms of consumption. Examples are aplenty:

  • A Sears catalog of 1893, changing both the medium of consumption and itself propelling the art of advertising, but carried by another breakthough:
  • Development of communications (possible by adoption of a telegraph (well told in a marvelous book “the Victorian Internet” its impact on money transfers changing the model of a one Western Union);
  • Logistics and forward shipping — allowing businesses like American Express and Wells Fargo to grow across the routes of hardware and gold transportation during and in the aftermath of the California Gold Rush;
  • Data processing (Bank of Italy and its desire to break through the border of the state — and the pioneering Westinghouse Electric / GE lockbox automation it used, or even Charles Babbage theoretical foray to eliminate errors in printing of mathematical tables books, resulting in a theoretical Analytical Engine).

All of the mentioned breakthroughs:

  • Had their inspiration point and the logical or philosophical system attached to it: also, in contrast with medieval experimental inventions, they had a scientific method to improve on the original “a-ha”;
  • Had their application point via well built scalable system that applied the invention: had a mechanism that scaled and allowed the invention to propagate (Mokyr is probably best to tell a number of stories on the subject).

These were either sponsored by wealthy patrons, associations or angel investors — that then formed a sizeable market for the results of these exploits to benefit from.

I was guided by Michael Bruck, former Technical Assistant to the legendary leader of Intel, to this interview of Andy Grove and had connected immediately with the intro section — of enthusiastic people inventing sex “all the time” — forgetting about the previous generations “in the heat of the moment”.

Another near instant recollection came from a book I read long ago — by a legendary if not widely known publicly — computer scientist and author of books on computer design and project management Fred Brooks: who’ve said in one of the interviews — “we have all built a cathedral, brick by brick”. His projects, including a major 360 series at IBM, were influenced by major Mark I development pushed by Howard Aiken, who, in turn, was fascinated by pursuits of Charles Babbage.

Had all these innovations not been part of a successful commercial application during their time or sequent generations — we would not have heard of them. But we did.

Where Brooks “need moment” came from the Organisation Man culture that took over the US, Aiken saw major support from the WW2 R&D, and Babbage sought ways to eradicate errors in printing mathematical tables books.

All of them stood on the shoulders of past giants: while often re-interpreting the data previous generations had (as told by Thomas Kuhn in his magisterial “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”), it’s not that Aristotle’s concepts were “bad Newton” — “they were different”.

Look for the shift, apply reason — and seek scale.

To follow:

  1. An undertaking to dissect the wealth (premium) accumulation in Early Renaissance Florence and what management application of “fintech” innovations allowed for that;
  2. A review of economic growth periods through the lens of economic history, as demonstrated by Great Depression of the 1930ies and how past scaling of tech allowed a substantial growth of productivity.

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Daniel Gusev

14 years in global payments and ecommerce. 3 exits. VC at @gauss_vc