This piece from Anton Howes gets at one of the key insights about how innovation works: it doesn’t happen through sudden bursts of insight from thin air — it requires the combination of the right simmering ingredients and a person in search of solutions to specific problems:
Santorio’s claim, it seems, is safe. But in this lies an important lesson for all would-be inventors. The inverted flask experiment had been around for centuries, and even been understood since ancient times as being caused by hot and cold. So its application as a thermometer was extremely low-hanging fruit. The likelihood of it being interpreted as a temperature-measuring device might have increased somewhat in the mid-sixteenth century, when we find the first mentions of it being done using a glass flask rather than an opaque metal container. Yet even then, the visible rise and fall of the liquid in the open bucket, rather than the flask, could always have been noted and measured against a scale in much the same way. What Antonini’s letter also shows us is that even when a scale was applied to the experiment, an ingenious person who knew their cutting-edge science like he did could still fail to appreciate the potential of what they had done.
In this case, the “inverted flask” had existed for many year, and Santorio was actively searching for ways to measure temperature. Innovation requires the right mixture of “prior art” and the willful intent in search of solutions. Progress doesn’t happen automatically!