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The Usefulness of Useless Things

2013 March 3

Marie Curie, the only person to win Nobel prizes in two separate sciences, once said this about the importance of dreamers:

“Humanity certainly needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit.”

In our ROI-driven, accountability-dominated business environment, we’ve come to revere the former, practically minded executives, at the expense of the latter, dreamier type. Many think like Tim Kastelle, who argues on his site that you always need to know where you’re going if you are ever to get anywhere, but I think history shows that’s not really true.

A Minor Traffic Incident

During the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Vladimir Zworykin escaped down the River Ob, through Siberia, where he knew that the peasants, lacking wireless communication, were completely unaware of the political situation.  He eventually escaped to the United States, where, being an experimental physicist, he found work in Westinghouse labs.

His misadventures continued there.  Once, while stopping at a red light, one of his experimental vacuum tubes fell off the back seat and exploded.  Hearing a sound much like a gun shot, a policeman rushed to investigate and began to question the hapless immigrant with the heavy Russian accent.

Zworykin tried to explain that it was a special kind of tube that exploded, one that could transform radio waves into pictures.  “So now you see pictures on the radio do ya,” the police officer cracked, before hauling him off to the station to straighten things out. Zworykin’s employer felt very much the same way and refused to invest in his idea.

It wasn’t until over a decade later, after he had received the backing of fellow Russian emigre David Sarnoff, that Zworykin’s impractical idea of television came to fruition where, fittingly, police dramas remain among the most popular fare.

A Father’s Advice

Unlike Vladimir Zworykin, Max von Neumann was an intensely practical man.  A successful banker, he attained the kind of wealth that allowed him to purchase an honorary title (hence, the “von” in his name) and become a solid member of the fin de siècle Budapest bourgeoisie that wielded influence in the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

His son Johnny, however, was a different breed.  An exceptionally bright young man, who published his first academic paper at the age of 17, he wanted to be a mathematician. Afraid that his son was consigning himself to a life of poverty, Max did his best to dissuade the young man, even enlisting luminaries such as Theodore von Kármán to his cause.

In the event, everybody was so impressed with young Johnny’s talents that a compromise was reached.  The boy would take two degrees, one in chemical engineering and one in mathematics, but he proved both so clumsy in the lab and so adept with numbers that the world would come to know John von Neumann as a mathematician.

Perhaps to his father’s ultimate astonishment, one of his most lasting triumphs came from a paper he wrote in 1928 at the tender age of 25.  It was a theory of games.

The Ultimate Useless Place

The fates of Zworykin and von Neumann would collide thanks to the work of Abraham Flexner, who published an article in 1939 entitled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, in which he recounted a conversation he had with the great industrialist George Eastman.

He asked Mr. Eastman who he thought was the man most useful to science, to which Eastman replied that he felt it was Marconi, the inventor of radio.  Flexner then argued that Marconi was inevitable, given the work of Maxwell and Hertz, who discovered the basic principles.  Further, he argued that these men were driven not by practicality, but merely by curiosity.

Flexner went on to describe an institution he was building at Princeton, called the Institute for Advanced Study, in which minds like von Neumann as well as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and many others, could pursue any subject they liked in any manner they chose, without any responsibility to teach or publish.

It was there that von Neumann utilized a later version of Zworykin’s vacuum tubes, by then embellished by Zworykin’s protege Jan Rajchman, into a computer that could store programs.  This arrangement, now known as the von Neumann architecture, is standard for just about every computing device in the world.

Who Really Made the iPhone?

If Abraham Flexner and George Eastman had the same conversation today, there is no doubt that they would have discussed not Marconi, but Steve Jobs who is the most prominent architect of today’s technology.  Amazingly, he has done it with exceptionally low investment in research and development.

However, as I’ve argued before, Jobs was more of an artist than an engineer.  He didn’t really invent technology, but rather revolutionized the way we used it.  He was, in effect, the “last mile” of innovation.  He took the discoveries of others and created products with a soul.  No small feat, but certainly not the whole story.  Not by a long shot.

The origins of computing and, therefore, the iPhone as well, lay in very much the kind of activity that Flexner described:  Mathematicians, logicians and physicists pursuing the objects of their fancy, with no thought to their practical use.  The principles they established were eventually made useful through the efforts of more practical men, such as Jobs and Marconi.

Innovations, then, are not mere products, but rather form an ecosystem which makes products possible.

The Innovation Ecosystem

The term “innovation,” in fact, is a poor attempt to describe a wide range of activity.  To create some clarity, I developed the innovation management matrix, shown below.  The basic principle is that to develop a workable approach to innovation, you need to ask two questions:  How well is the problem defined and how well you can define who can solve it?

The problems which Flexner designed the Institute for Advanced Studies to pursue were ones that were not only poorly defined, but also involved expertise that was too new to have a clear definition.  Other innovations, like the discovery of DNA, are well defined but require some crossing of domains to solve them.

Large institutions like Apple tend to excel at sustaining innovations, in which both the problem and domain are well defined, but are often taken by surprise by disruptive innovations, which are products with no clear business purpose.  For example, both Google and Netflix tried to sell early to market leaders, but couldn’t.  The established firms, Yahoo and Blockbuster, just didn’t see the value in them.

Innovation Matrix w solutions
However, it would be a mistake to view each form of innovation as a separate entity. Breakthrough innovation comes into play when basic research has run its course. Sustaining innovation becomes possible when basic principles are well understood. Disruptive opportunities open up when sustaining innovation overshoots consumer needs.

And so, while every organization finds itself more adept in one part of the innovation ecosystem and less adept in others, there must be an awareness of the entire organism.  The greatest achievements of practical men are, in fact, born out of dreamers’ pursuit of useless things.

– Greg

Note: If you’d like to see the other side of the argument, see Tim Kastelle’s post here.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Loved that post Greg but one thing should be noted…Tesla invented the radio
    even though the science rumor that Marconi did is persistent to this day.

    For all his accomplishments, however, Tesla was most affected by the slap in the face he felt when Marconi received the Nobel Prize in 1909. Marconi shared the prize with German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun, “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.” I should mention that one of the most famous quotations attributed to Tesla about Marconi is the following: “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.” Of course, Tesla spoke these words before Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize. In a turn of bitter irony, Tesla died before he was awarded the patent initially awarded to Marconi. According to the fantastic PBS piece on Tesla (, the Supreme Court had awarded the patent to Tesla merely to avoid having to pay any royalties to the Marconi Corporation, which was suing the US government for patents used during World War I.

  2. March 3, 2013

    Good point, Chris!

    On the other hand, I don’t see anyone naming their car companies after Hertz or Maxwell 🙂

    – Greg

  3. March 7, 2013

    A simply awesome post – that’s all I can say !

  4. March 7, 2013

    Thanks Martin:-)

  5. March 7, 2013


    having let this sink in a bit – I somehow connected these ideas a little with Obliquity

    Obliquity is the idea that complex goals are often best pursued indirectly. In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined. These objectives contain many elements that aren’t necessarily or obviously compatible with each other. Furthermore, we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery.


  6. March 7, 2013


    I see your point, but think Obliquity goes too far. What I’m trying to point out is that “useless thinking” plays an important part, but the “last mile” made up of practical men like Steve Jobs is no less important.

    So, as I said above, I think it’s important to think about innovation as an ecosystem, with both useless and practical think playing out their roles to the benefit of us all.

    – Greg

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