Age of Invention: On the Silver Screen

Anton HowesFeb 12 12 5

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As I mentioned last time, increasing the supply of people becoming inventors is possibly one of the most significant, world-changing things that anyone can do. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I call upstream policies: things that expose people to the idea of invention, increasing the chances that they themselves will be inspired with an improving mentality — a mindset of seeing problems where others do not, and then developing solutions to them. Contrary to "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it", the inventor is the person who can’t help but see the extra potential to improve things, and can’t resist applying their fixes too.

During the Industrial Revolution, most exposure to invention seems to have been face-to-face. There are a handful of cases where reading about inventors may have played a role in inspiring some people to invent. John Harrison, the clockmaker who created a timepiece so advanced that it allowed sailors to find their longitude even at sea, was allegedly given a copy of the scientific lectures of Nicholas Saunderson by a visiting clergyman when he was just a boy. (Whether it was the book or really the clergyman who inspired him, however, it is difficult to say.) Likewise, Francis Maceroni, an early nineteenth-century pioneer of kite-surfing, who also applied himself to improving swimming, paddle wheels, rockets, asphalt paving, and steam carriages, among other things, seems to have first been exposed to innovation by reading various books on science, including the works of Benjamin Franklin. Or take the young George Stephenson, pioneer of railway locomotion, who read a history of inventions that apparently prompted him to try to invent a perpetual motion machine (before another book, this time on mechanics, revealed to him the error in trying).

Inspiration can be indirect, with the written word complementing face-to-face interactions, or even prompting them to seek them, as well as giving people a taste of the improving mentality. I suspect that books like Samuel Smiles’s bestseller Self Help — essentially a collection of pulled-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps stories about inventors — played a part in inspiring people to also have a go at improvement in the late nineteenth century, a little after the period I mainly study.

Today, however, we have many more media available to us to encourage people to become inventors — from radio and film, to video games and various other kinds of social media. Yet I’m not sure we’re doing it all that well. As I mentioned last time, I’ve been working my way through a bunch of the films that were suggested to me (the list is here), and so far I have largely been disappointed.

Take The Prestige (2006), directed by Christopher Nolan. It’s a good film. Well-directed, engaging, superbly acted, and full of mystery. I can see why it was suggested to me, too. We follow the rivalry of two magicians, getting to see how they do their tricks, and are even introduced at one point to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie with a moustache and accent). Indeed, one of Tesla’s machines is at the heart of the film’s mystery. Yet at no point are we actually shown the process of invention. The magicians’ secrets are spilled, and we see them try to out-do one another, but innovation is essentially just a part of the scenery, with no scope for the film to do anything to inspire improvement.

Likewise, Guru (2007) is about a man who goes into business marketing polyester, rather than cotton. I think this must have been the innovation that people were alluding to when they suggested this film to me. Yet there is no detail about how he achieves his success, building a vast conglomerate and becoming the richest man in India. A problem arises, the intense music plays up, he smoulders to camera. And then we immediately cut to a future in which the problem has been solved. How? We don’t know.

Even when the films are ostensibly about real inventors, they can hardly feature invention. Radioactive (2019) is ostensibly about Marie Curie and her discoveries, but most of the film is really about her relationships with her husband, a lover, and her eldest daughter. About 15 minutes in, we are rather belatedly treated to an overview of what she’s actually doing, but it is very brief and superficial. And the film did nothing to set her work in context. There’s lots of "I’m a brilliant scientist, and everybody else is wrong" in the script, without the film ever really showing how, exactly, she changed people’s understanding. Indeed, beyond the initial discovery of radium, all subsequent work of hers is simply mentioned in passing. Innovation is, once again, relegated to the scenery.

And much the same, unfortunately, can be said of The Current War (2017), about the race between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to provide electricity to the United States — a film that quite a few people recommended to me. Despite the fact that the film is about two people who are famous specifically because of their inventions, I don’t think there’s even a single scene in which we are actually shown the process of invention. It either happens off-screen and we simply learn about the results, or the machinery is just a few wires and chunks of metal for them to poke with a screwdriver while they deal with personal issues. (I have another complaint here, which is that just like in Radioactive, historical figures and achievements are often briefly name-checked as though we’re rattling through the subjects’ Wikipedia articles. It makes both films feel like they’re trying to be educational, which somehow makes them less so by breaking the immersion.)

Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon, but on the basis of how they depict invention, and thus their potential to spread the improving mentality, all of the above films score 0 out of 5 with me. This is not a matter of historical accuracy, which isn’t really that relevant for the purposes of spreading an idea. Myths can serve a purpose, after all. A fictional character might be just as inspiring as the dramatised rendition of a real person. Nor is this an assessment of the overall quality of the film. The Prestige, as I said, was a good watch. But to earn even a single point — might widgets or cogs or transistors or something be more appropriate than stars? — the film has to actually show something of the process of invention, rather than just have it as scenery.

A little better are films like The Wind Rises (2013). This is an anime (the first I’ve ever seen) that follows the early career of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer working for Mitsubishi in the lead-up the Second World War. Although the heart of it is really about his personal life, there are some neat little depictions of the improvements he makes to Japanese planes along the way. It shows, for example, that he finds a way to make the bolts as flush as possible to the plane’s surface, to reduce drag. This attention to a seemingly quite marginal improvement is, I think, important. It reflects the reality of invention, with even the great leaps forward ultimately being comprised of lots of minor tweaks. And it makes invention less mysterious, and thus more copiable, if you break it down into its stages. Beyond scenes like this, however, the planes are again just part of the wallpaper. It’s not clear how Horikoshi comes up with his improvements, and no effort is made to really explain what’s going on with some of the other ones. As for his major redesign of the plane’s overall form, this is not explained at all. It’s just a beautiful thing that gradually takes shape in his dreams.

On the plus side, however, Horikoshi’s career is something that any viewer could emulate — he’s just a boy who dreamt of planes, and was motivated to get an education that allowed him to design them. This is in stark contrast to one of the worst pitfalls of many films about invention, which is that they portray invention as the result of some kind of unpredictable and possibly even divine genius, with biopic ascending to hagiography. The worst offender is a film like Iron Man (2008) and its various sequels, in which genius for invention is raised to the status of superpower, and with the protagonist Tony Stark eventually leading a team that includes an actual deity. For all that it makes being an inventor seem quite cool, which is perhaps important, it places invention firmly beyond the reach of us mere mortals. It is not something that can be emulated, not just in terms of Stark’s innate genius, but down to the very tools at his disposal — inherited billions, fictional scientific advancements to build upon, and super-powered Artificial Intelligence that actually does a lot of the inventing for him. In one film he even solves time travel in an evening.

Slightly better on this front is Big Hero 6 (2014), a charming Disney cartoon. Like Iron Man, the science is often fictional, and in general it makes invention seem cool. But the protagonist is a child with an ordinary background who, whilst clever, is at least someone who might be emulated. Many of the inventions can also be understood, in something more than just a purely superficial sense, in that they involve the application of the fictional scientific principles. But the film gets the improving mentality back to front. It often starts with the premise that one should try to invent in a sort of vague and out-of-nowhere way, with the protagonist for example needing to come up with something to impress a professor at a science fair. In other scenes it starts with scientific principles, and then has the characters try to think up applications. Yet the core of the improving mentality is that inventors are the people who find room for improvement where others don’t. Only then do they do something about it. That first step, of identifying the ordinary as a problem, is crucial.

A film that does this better is Joy (2015). The protagonist, Joy Mangano, cuts her hands while trying to mop up some broken glass, and it’s the annoyance that rekindles some of her childhood creativity. She identifies it as a problem worth solving, rather than an accident with which to just make do. The rest proceeds from there, though unfortunately the process by which she actually develops the invention is shown through the medium of a dream and a crayon drawing, followed by a superficial montage. Having succeeded at showing invention as both marginal and about problem identification, as well as something that could be emulated — Mangano at the start of the film is in a low-paid, dead-end job and is having her life-force drained away by a jealous half-sister, an ex-husband who lives in her basement, and two demanding and dysfunctional parents, not to mention having to take care of her own young children — the film ultimately falls down by not really showing the detail of her inventive process.

Perhaps satisfying all my criteria sounds like a tall order. But it’s done especially well in the opening scenes of The Founder (2016), which shows Richard and Maurice McDonald developing a super-efficient fast food kitchen. No matter what you think of McDonald’s today, the improving mentality is especially evident, as they start to identify problem after problem where all others only see the way that diners have always and everywhere been run. It also shows some of the detail of their experimentation as they make marginal tweaks here and there to optimise the flow of the cooking. It’s satisfying to watch, even elegant. The rest of the movie is about Ray Kroc, the person who scaled the company up into being a national franchise, though it continues to show some of the more intangible kinds of improvements to hiring, financing, and quality control. And while Kroc ends up as something of a villain, I don’t think that’s a problem really. Villains can also be inspiring if they’re sufficiently successful or cool, as Byrne Hobart has pointed out of The Social Network (2010), about the founding of Facebook.

Yet the best movie about invention, from those on the list that I’ve seen so far, is easily Pad Man (2018), which follows the extraordinary true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham. On the making invention something that can be emulated, it’s a shoo-in, as the protagonist is a poor labourer doing odd jobs in an Indian village. On the improving mentality, too, it’s hard to see how this movie’s opening montage could be bettered. It reveals the many little ways in which he identifies problems in the everyday life of his wife, showing how he solves them with marginal improvements. Indeed, the focus of the film is just an extension of that trend, with a concern for his wife’s health turning into an obsession with creating cheap sanitary pads. Indeed, the bulk of the film is about the development of the invention, as he investigates different parts of the process, and tries to get it adopted, all in the face of fierce stigma as he continually breaks taboos. On detail, it wins hands down, such that by the end of the movie you have a pretty clear understanding of how all the machinery works, having been with him every step of the way. And it’s astonishingly rewarding. The film raises all sorts of emotions — I don’t want to give too much away — but I had to pause for about half a minute when his invention finally, finally worked, as I was crying too hard from joy. It’s a master-class in how to depict invention well. (The only thing stopping me from giving Pad Man a pure 5/5 is that the film is about 30 minutes too long — the makers couldn’t resist squeezing in an additional and rather pointless made-up personal story, and are a little too over-the top with the celebrations of eventual success. It detracts just a little from the coolness factor.)

I’m going to continue watching films and TV shows from the list of suggestions, so feel free to send me more. And please do watch along. Otherwise, in addition to the usual, more historical posts, I’ll start to assemble a list of how the films score according to the five factors I’ve discussed here: whether they show the detail of invention, the marginality of improvements, the identification of problems, that invention can be emulated, and if they make invention cool. As I mentioned last time, if we can learn what works and what does not, we might improve the spread of improvement.

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