Another interesting post from Roots of Progress, following up from the previous one, which asked why it took so long to invent the bicycle.
This question on invention is an interesting one. My first reaction is to agree with Jason in general that the leisure time and latitude permitted by times of plenty gives us more room for study and experimentation — the steps that lead to incremental discovery. However there have been many breakthrough discoveries happened upon by accident.
Often times progress is spurred forward by intentional inventions leading to unintentional second-order effects, sometimes negative ones but most of the time positive, unpredicted outcomes:
More generally, it’s impossible to predict which discoveries or inventions are going to be important, at the time they are made, or to see all of the most important applications that will come. When Newcomen invented the steam engine, I don’t think he had any idea that over a century later a descendant of his machine would power railroads and steamboats. Edison invented the phonograph but didn’t predict the recorded music industry. Rockefeller established the oil industry to produce kerosene, then decades later pivoted to gasoline for automobiles. And when DARPA wrote the first grant to invent the Internet, they had no idea how much bandwidth would one day be consumed by cat pictures. So even if people were motivated purely by utility, or wanted to be, we wouldn’t know which directions to pursue. We make progress only through a wandering, unpredictable process of exploration.
The correlation is there to lean toward “plenty”, for sure. Another reason the study of progress warrants official research to understand its mechanics, so we can keep that flywheel spinning.