Reasons to learn about history of technology and entrepreneurship

It’s 2015 and Patrick Collison was invited to talk about his Silicon Valley fast-growing company at the lecture entitled Technology-enabled Blitzscaling. As he enters the room, instructor John Lilly points out that “he walked in with a book made of paper, which is always very exciting.” Further down the interview, John wonders why he has so much interest in history.

For Patrick, it’s a way to cheat

Everyone else ignores all the good ideas from history, and so you can just be much smarter by just, you know — you could just try to think all these incredibly original thoughts by sort of sitting down and staring at the wall for days on end — or you can sort of cheat by just, you know, I mean they are, in fact, written down in books that you can just read. (Patrick Collison — Greylock Partners, 2015, 11:17)

Patrick’s point of view would normally pass without myself noticing anything special. But it turns out that I was also reading an amazing book about history of technology: The Power Makers, by historian Maury Klein. These events led me to reflect and write about some considerations on why entrepreneurs should read about the history of entrepreneurship.

The conditions influencing the entrepreneur

When great historians drag us back in time, they help us better understand how factors, such as period and the cultural environment, have an effect in entrepreneur’s decisions and goals.

It’s like a view from within that reveals how an entrepreneur moves into becoming a protagonist:

  • What brings us to come up with ideas? a pain? an obstacle on our way? a vision we had after long years of thinking?
  • What made them pursue a life of entrepreneurship? what factors contributes for us to persevere for decades?

Connecting the dots leading to innovation

Storytelling of entrepreneurship provides sufficient richness helping us to connect the dots for how inventors bring their ideas to market: from background to how an idea appeared, moving to how they evolve into a product, showing the potential pitfalls or how ideas are brought to the market.

It’s like a view from the above that conciliates how external factors are influential to entrepreneurship:

  • What pitfalls we can find? What obstacles appears in front of us?
  • What are the conditions that can favor the further development of our goals?
  • Will the environment be friendly in the short, medium and long run?

A look at successes and failures

It’s great to learn about successes. But historians will also tell you about the failures; and more, the failures of first movers that unfolded amazing successes later. This level of contrast helps entrepreneurs to better understand a macro view for how inventors and inventions correlate and collaborate in the long run.

The following illustration is the vision that Oliver Evans depicted in one of his early patents: an amphibious car-boat transport system using a steam engine. Oliver didn’t succeed in bringing that to the world, it was a bit far ahead of its time. However, his automatic milling process machine impacted the whole economy of the United States as most of the milling systems were based in his design.

Oliver Evan’s steam carriage, as depicted in his patent for a high-pressure steam engine. An artistic reconstruction of Oruktor Amphibolos, 1834 31 December 1833 — public domain

The biases that we are locked in

Reading how amazing inventions were born helps us soften our minds and better recognize how much biased we are.

Ampere and Coulomb ideas were so strong regarding the (lack of) relationship between electricity and magnetism, leading to the general acceptance that no relationship existed between these areas. Such belief persisted for about 20 years, when suddenly however an unknown professor hits a discovery by chance: It was during an experiment with his students when professor Oersted were melting wires and noticed that a compass moved every time the electricity was being turned on/off.

After such discovery Oersted published a paper. While Ampere priorly did not believe in such relationship, this was a real experiment with no theories to be discussed. From that moment Ampere not only accepted but he unleashed significant potential which led him to immediately start contributing to this new field in a matter of 2 months.

In the above passage, new opportunities appeared after that irrefutable observation of effects of the physical world, enabling the status-quo of scientists to be dropped quickly.

But here we are, now, positioned in front of upcoming opportunities we don’t even know it — not always exactly believing in what is next, exactly because we believe so much in what is here now.

Back in 2007, Brian Chesky and his cofounders kept launching and relaunching their idea hoping that people would start to consider sleeping in someone’s mattress. Now, however, that Airbnb is a major competitor of hotels with a value of more than 25 billion, we finally believe, perhaps even to a point to be biased with the new norm: entrepreneurs now keep launching Airbnb for this and Uber for that.


In case you find yourself so right about our status-quo (market, industries, feasibility conditions, and culture) try to give a chance to read about the history of entrepreneurs.

Videos

Greylock Partners. (November 4, 2015). Blitzscaling 11: Patrick Collison on Hiring at Stripe and the Role of a Product-Focused CEO [video]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/qrDZhAxpKrQ