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Ideas Behind Their Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2021

For the FT, Tim Harford writes about things that could have been invented far sooner than they actually were.

Consider the bicycle. It was not produced in even the most primitive form until the early 1800s, and a practical version with chain drive was not widespread until the 1880s — just in time to compete with the motor car.

Anton Howes, author of Arts and Minds, points to the flying shuttle, invented in 1733. “It radically increased the productivity of weaving,” he writes. “It involved no new materials…and required no special skill or science.” The craft that it transformed has been around long enough to be mentioned in the Old Testament.

Steven Johnson, in his book Extra Life, suggests that evidence-based medicine is an idea behind its time. The idea of running experiments is centuries old, but the first properly randomised controlled trial in medicine took place in 1948. It could easily have been routine before da Vinci’s time, but instead clinical trials lagged far behind anaesthetic, antibiotics, antiseptic, pasteurisation and vaccines.