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Technology (22): Francis Bacon on Combinatorial Innovation, the Big Three Technologies of the Renaissance, and Pure Science


There are, moreover, some inventions which render it probable that men may pass and hurry over the most noble discoveries which lie immediately before them. For however the discovery of gunpowder, silk, the compass, sugar, paper, or the like, may appear to depend on peculiar properties of things and nature, printing at least involves no contrivance which is not clear and almost obvious. But from want of observing that although the arrangement of the types of letters required more trouble than writing with the hand, yet these types once arranged serve for innumerable impressions, while manuscript only affords one copy; and again, from want of observing that ink might be thickened so as to stain without running (which was necessary, seeing the letters face upward, and the impression is made from above), this most beautiful invention (which assists so materially the propagation of learning) remained unknown for so many ages.

The human mind is often so awkward and ill-regulated in the career of invention that it is at first diffident, and then despises itself. For it appears at first incredible that any such discovery should be made, and when it has been made, it appears incredible that it should so long have escaped men’s research. All which affords good reason for the hope that a vast mass of inventions yet remains, which may be deduced not only from the investigation of new modes of operation, but also from transferring, comparing, and applying these already known, by the method of what we have termed literate experience.


Again, we should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world: first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation; and innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

It will, perhaps, be as well to distinguish three species and degrees of ambition. First, that of men who are anxious to enlarge their own power in their country, which is a vulgar and degenerate kind; next, that of men who strive to enlarge the power and empire of their country over mankind, which is more dignified but not less covetous; but if one were to endeavor to renew and enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe, such ambition (if it may be so termed) is both more sound and more noble than the other two. Now the empire of man over things is founded on the arts and sciences alone, for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.

Besides this, if the benefit of any particular invention has had such an effect as to induce men to consider him greater than a man, who has thus obliged the whole race, how much more exalted will that discovery be, which leads to the easy discovery of everything else! Yet (to speak the truth) in the same manner as we are very thankful for light which enables us to enter on our way, to practice arts, to read, to distinguish each other, and yet sight is more excellent and beautiful than the various uses of light; so is the contemplation of things as they are, free from superstition or imposture, error or confusion, much more dignified in itself than all the advantage to be derived from discoveries.

Lastly, let none be alarmed at the objection of the arts and sciences becoming depraved to malevolent or luxurious purposes and the like, for the same can be said of every worldly good; talent, courage, strength, beauty, riches, light itself, and the rest. Only let mankind regain their rights over nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

Francis BaconNovum Organum


Electrification, internal combustion, powered flight, mass production, nuclear fission, electronics and computers are probably the defining technologies of the last century.

What have I missed? (I’ve left out the internet because I think it probably defines this century more than the previous one).

What’s defining our society today, and what does it mean for your life and work?

To what extent are they ‘becoming depraved to malevolent or luxurious purposes and the like’, and how might you resist?


12. Innovation is the seed of science just as often as it is the fruit of science.
We think scientific, philosophical enquiry discovers principles which are then applied in technologies that we all use. And that does sometimes happen, but just as often it’s the other way around: we tinker with technologies and come up with things that work and we then go back and try and understand why. The science of thermodynamics came out of the steam engine; the science of chemistry came out of the dyeing industry … CRISPR gene editing… looks like it comes out of Berkeley and MIT universities, but actually… a key role was played by the yogurt industry before it even got into universities.

Matt Ridley – Academy of Ideas Podcast, 7 July 2020

See also:

Matt Ridley: 15 principles of innovation from “How Innovation Works”
Efosa Ojomo on market-creating innovation
Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators
Marc Andreesen on networks of innovation
… and “Scenius”
César Hidalgo on the importance of trust in networks of innovation
Astro Teller on planning, experimentation and innovation
Resource: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation
Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation
The innovation in your head…
W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation
Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...