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Invention is the Mother of Necessity

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but in our world these days, it’s often actually exactly in reverse: invention is the mother of necessity.

broken light bulbFor example, before we had cell phones we survived without being able to call from anywhere to anywhere at any time. Phone calls happened only when we were at home, or in the office, or, in an emergency, from phone booths. And, amazingly enough, we all survived. And lived to tell the tale.

And yet today, now, we can’t live without cell phones. Try leaving yours at home or in the office some day, and getting through your day without it. Can you? Of course not. Invention is the mother of necessity.

The same  is true with email, SMS text messaging, even the Web connection. I shudder to even think of being cut off from the Web for an hour, let alone a day or longer. Perish the thought. And yet, amazingly enough, back in the 1980s and earlier we survived without the Web. See what I mean?

Spreadsheets, when they first came out in the early 1980s, made extensive budgeting and financial analysis relatively easy. Now we take spreadsheets for granted, and demand a lot more budgeting and analysis than we used to.

The early laser printers and page layout software made something we called “desktop publishing” suddenly accessible to the masses. Then it was unusual. Today we absolutely demand desktop publishing in everything we do, as a matter of course.

Invention is the mother of necessity.

(Image: snail race via Flickr cc)


  • says:

    While necessity can cause people to invent, I think what Mr. Berry is trying to convey is that for an entrepreneur, it can also be about creating the need for a service. This is also referred to in Kranzberg’s law in business. While technology can be used as any tool can be to solve a need, another path is to manipulate the human factor to create a need.

  • Jeremy says:

    Tim, your thoughts in this article were amazing. coincidentally, I was writing a paper on materialism and was thinking of that quote. I decided to look for it on the web. I just happened to come across this article. It seems that we create the need for things we don’t need. This idea might fuel the business world now, but it will bankrupt all economies in the future. The question is, how do we create a business model that decreases necessity and increase efficiency?

  • Jack says:

    I completely disagree. We find new uses for existing
    advances, but the advances were only made off the back of a need
    for them. What happened next was an expansion of the original need.
    Just because not every man on the street needed email doesn’t mean
    there wasn’t a necessity for it – ignorance is bliss after all…
    So your idiom that invention is the “mother” doesn’t work, as the
    original invention didn’t spawn the original need. The original
    need or vision spawned the original invention, but bastard child
    “needs” resulted when the invention had affairs beyond its original
    planned marriage with, say, demand. Necessity married Vision, they
    had a kid called Invention. Then Demand strayed and had bastard
    kids called Gadget, Gizmo and “Superfluous”. An extended idiom, but
    you get the picture: without an original necessity, coupled with
    the vision to create something to serve that necessity, the
    invention would not have existed to then be ‘evolved’ for the
    average consumer.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Jack, thanks, disagreement is welcome, actually I’m glad to see this two-year-old post is still getting some attention. Nice work on the family metaphor, too.

    • Lynne Cordero says:

      Well, three years might be a bit late to insert my two cents, but why not:

      I think we tend to confuse desire with necessity here. There was a time in our existence where we couldn’t afford desires. We simply lived off the sweat of our brow, fed our bodies what they needed, slept, and rose at sunrise to start it all over again. But we did, however, reach a point in time where inventions improved our daily lives to the point that they afforded us time– time to entertain desires, and conceive of how things can be “improved upon,” not so much out of necessity, but out of boredom really . By this time, markets and merchants had already come in existence, so enterprise was very much the means of survival for most, especially in such a hierarchy of noblemen and peasantry, and likewise, inventions were motivated by the need to have something to sell. They made lives easier, but were more novelty items at the time than anything else. We had grown from a subsistence society built upon necessity to a society of convenience. Those are very important distinctions to make. A poor man today would have been considered rich beyond measure in these societies, and yet today, he is poor.

  • I Think Seth’s Slick is, Sadly, Too Optimistic says:

    […] wish that were true, but I doubt it. What actually happens is that the bar goes up, as in my my invention is the mother of necessity post from a couple of months ago. As gloss becomes available for not much money, everybody has to […]

  • Mneiae says:

    I am currently in Beijing without a cell phone. As a teen in America, having a social life mandates that I carry a cell phone with me at all times. It’s my watch and something to play with when I am bored. The times when I wished that I could tweet cool things in Beijing so that I would remember the experience were many.

    I am young enough that living without the Web is not really something that I can remember. Ditto for email.

  • Daria Steigman says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’m laughing as I read this at 35,000 ft. What did I do before I had Twitter, blog posts, and email to distract me on long flights? Oh, that’s right, reading, writing, and (gasp) downtime.

    Have a great weekend,

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