When H.G. Wells was born in 1866, there was no electricity or cars or even indoor plumbing. Still, his active imagination conjured up a world of time machines, space travel and genetic engineering. This was all completely fantasy, but his books foresaw many modern inventions, such as email, lasers and nuclear energy.
It’s no accident that people who invent the future are often fans of science fiction. In fact, in Leading Transformation, the former head of Lowe’s innovation lab explains how he hired science fiction writers to help inspire the company to leverage virtual reality and build a new future for the company.
To create anything truly new and different, you often need to discard the constraints of the present. Yet that comes with a problem. How do you transform fantasy into something real and useful? What makes great innovators truly different is how they combine imagination with practical problem solving in order to bring even the wildest pipe dreams into reality.
How A “Memex” Machine Became The Internet
“Consider a future device for individual use,” Vannevar Bush wrote in The Atlantic in 1945, “which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
It was an unlikely vision for the time. The first computers were just being developed then and were themselves somewhat impractical devices, which is why Bush imagined that the memex would be based on microfilm. Yet Bush was no inveterate dreamer, but in many ways the architect of America’s path to scientific dominance and people took him seriously.
One of those was a young radar technician stationed in the Philippines named Douglas Engelbart, who would return to school to study electrical engineering. It was that expertise, along with Bush’s vision that led him to think of computers, still primitive at the time, as machines that could do more than merely calculate, but “augment the human intellect.”