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The Impossibility of Invention

The Impossible

In 1899, a recommendation was put to US President McKinley to close the Patents Office because there was nothing left to be invented. The argument put forward to validate this view was that no one could name anything that had not yet been invented.

This is an interesting anecdote that identifies the role of inventing something in the realm of the impossible.

For John Harrison, this was precisely the context in which he worked - the problem of Longitude was generally viewed to be impossible.

In Dava Sobel’s account of the Longitude problem, Longitude had been a concern and a limit on ocean going exploration for several centuries prior to the creation of the Longitude Act in 1714. In 1492, Columbus’ epic voyage to the east was considered viable because he simply intended to follow the ‘parallel’ of latitude.

It was even suggested by a Flemish astronomer as early as 1530 that a clock could be a solution to the Longitude problem. This was almost 200 years prior to John Harrison beginning to focus on the Longitude problem and more than 240 years before he received full payment for his efforts in 1773.

One could easily imagine a problem of this scale and that remained unsolved for more than 250 years and many generations would begin to take on the aura of being impossible.

It was also not through lack of effort that the problem of Longitude was resolved either. The Longitude Act was passed by British Parliament in 1714 and offered a prize of £20,000 – equivalent to several million dollars today and sufficient to attract many great minds to the task.

Despite this incentive, the board of commissioners met for the first time 23 years after the prize was first announced because no one uptil that time had submitted a solution worthy of consideration.


In a similar way, at the turn of the 20th century a high degree of sceptism was held around the possibility of flying to the moon. The term ‘lunatic’ was used to describe people who believed that one day we would make it to the moon (lunar). Effectively, what was being said by some was that going to the moon was impossible and now we relate to a ‘lunatic’ as someone who is mad or crazy.


Today we live in a different world of thinking. Today it is more common to accept there is a cure for cancer and we simply haven’t found it yet. This is a remarkable turnaround in our thinking if we compare it to the thoughts of John Harrison’s day and it is an attitude to the world that sets us apart from our predecessors.

Similarly, large corporations invest large sums of money into research and development because they know and rely upon new inventions being created as a means to a competitive advantage and a viable future.

In John Harrison’s case, he had proven that his chronometers kept accurate time and that the problem of Longitude could be solved through a small ticking box. The belief that one can accomplish the impossible is surely a prerequisite for an ‘invention’.

Sobel describes Harrison’s role as ‘inventor’ and his impact on the world in this way:

“When John Harrison died… he held martyr status among clockmakers.

“For decades he had stood apart, virtually alone, as the only person in the world seriously pursuing a timekeeper solution to the longitude problem. Then suddenly, in the wake of Harrison’s success with H-4, legions of watchmakers took up the special calling of marine timekeeping. It became a boom industry in a maritime nation. Indeed, some modern horologists claim that Harrison’s work facilitated England’s mastery over the oceans, and thereby led to the creation of the British Empire – for it was by dint of the chronometer that Brittania ruled the waves.”

Dava Sobel, “Longitude”, Pages 152-3.

Categories and Types

One of the differences between invention and design can be viewed inside the distinctions ‘categories’ and ‘types’. To invent something is to create a new category of objects, for example, a motor car, a clock, or a computer. In contrast, design focuses on creating new types within the category. For example, a Ford or a Honda is a type of motor car.

In terms of invention and design, Harrison had created a new category of object, the chronometer. The industry that developed after him developed new types inside this category.

Further articles in the Longitude series

1 Background
2 From Nature to Machine
4 The Path of Innovation


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