Discover more from Network Capital
Basketball, Volleyball, Schumpeter and Vaccines
How things get discovered and invented
In 1891, James Naismith, a YMCA instructor based in Massachusetts, erected a peach basket in a gymnasium and invented the game of basketball. This is the background you should keep in mind -
Naismith, was a physical educator and inventor who wanted to keep his students active in winter. Massachusetts has a punishing winter and students were forced to stay indoors. The usual winter athletic activities were marching, calisthenics, and apparatus work but they weren’t nearly as interesting as football or lacrosse which were played during summers.
Naismith wanted to create a game that would be simple to understand but complex enough to be interesting. The game had to be playable indoors, and it had to accommodate several players at once. The game also needed to provide plenty of exercise for the students, yet without the physicality of football, soccer, or rugby since those would threaten more severe injuries if played in a confined space.
Naismith approached the school janitor, hoping he could find two square boxes to use for goals. When the janitor came back from his search, he had two peach baskets instead. Naismith nailed the peach baskets to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one on each side. The height of that lower balcony rail happened to be 10 feet. The students would play on teams to try to get the ball into their team’s basket. A person was stationed at each end of the balcony to retrieve the ball from the basket and put it back into play.
This is how basketball was born.
Might be a good time to refresh some of our lessons from our newsletters on basketball.
LeBron and Jordan both owe deep gratitude to James Naismith’s need-based innovation that transformed culture and added billions of dollars to the global economy.
Just 4 years later, in 1895, just 10 miles away from Naismith, at another YMCA, the physical-ed teacher William Morgan combined the serve from tennis and elements of team passing from handball to create volleyball.
Yes, innovation tends to be clustered in time, space, people and networks. Here is a quick refresher of a related newsletter we did built on the work of Matt Ridley.
Ridley argues that before any great innovation, there is a long and deep period characterized by failure, a shorter period marked by improvement in affordability followed by passionate rivalries and patent disputes. Towards the very end, helped in no small part by random luck, trial and error, an evolutionary improvement occurs that we call innovation.
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter said that new technology has two distinct stages. In the first, invention: We discover something new. In the second, innovation: The discovery is turned into a product or service to be sold in the market.
All of these concepts should be kept in mind as we think of what is happening around the world in terms of COVID vaccination, more specifically how such an innovation came to the market and how it was evangelized amidst intense political kerfuffle and social unrest.
Just 30 days after the first strain of coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, the entire genome of the responsible coronavirus was sorted, identified and posted online for wider collaboration and sharing.
14 days after that, designs were keyed into machines to create a vaccine — all this even before lockdowns became a thing.
This miracle did not just happen. It manifested in 44 days but the work on it had been going on for decades. Scientists around the world worked on different platforms to come up with a viable vaccine that could be rolled out at scale. It started with the initial painstaking effort of decoding the genomes of all living beings and folding in the development of sequencing machines that reduced the genetic reading time to hours. 4 scientists in particular - Corbett, Graham, Kariko and Weissman achieved a breakthrough of deep importance when they introduced a vaccine platform based on mRNA (manipulating mRNA was again a result of decades of hard work by scientists around the globe).
Any noteworthy progress is usually a result of compounding of knowledge - of individuals, institutions, governments, laboratories and organizations. While many governments refused to cooperate and others mismanaged their resources, scientists kept coordinating across borders to give us all a fighting chance.
As Schumpeter puts it, the invention of the vaccine (at least its origins) came first and it was followed up with radical speed with innovation to make it accessible. A lot more could have been done to ensure access to poorer countries but that didn’t happen because of politics and markets, not science.
So what connects the invention of basketball, volleyball and vaccines? To some extent, a problem-first people-first approach. The inventors wanted to play their part in solving a real problem keeping people at the core of their pursuits.
To a larger extent though, these inventions were brewing for a long time in the minds of their creators. They needed the right time, place and context for inventions to scale and become innovations. There was some luck, some randomness but most of all, there was innate desire to create tangible value out of a seemingly impossible solution - be it the winter in Massachusetts or the long winter of the pandemic which we are all still grappling with.
Afterthought: “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.“ Steven Johnson
Have a restful Sunday!