Why did the industrial revolution begin in England, instead of, say, France or Germany?
Two economists, Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, offer an explanation. They say the reason is Britain had more “tweakers”—skilled engineers and artisans who refined the signature inventions of the industrial age.
Take Samuel Cromton’s invention of the spinning mule, which mechanized cotton manufacturing. No fewer than five British tweakers refined the contraption to make it superproductive.
Henry Stones added metal rollers to the mule; James Hargreaves smoothed out the acceleration and deceleration of the wheel; William Kelly added water power; John Kennedy adapted it for fine counts; and Richard Roberts created the “automatic” spinning mule, essentially rethinking the invention.
Now consider the case of Steve Jobs, whose recent biography casts him as more of a tweaker than a large-scale inventor. Jobs borrowed the mouse and screen icons from Xerox.
He introduced the iPod after seeing how existing music players could be improved. And he introduced the iPhone nearly a decade after smartphones appeared on the scene.
Jobs, writes his biographer, “had noticed something odd about the cellphones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.”
So many aspects of Apple’s breakthrough designs were due to Jobs’ perfectionism. He had developers make tweak after tweak, until he saw something he liked.
The same thing happened with the spinning mule, which was perhaps the most productive invention of the industrial revolution. But the tweaks are what provided an even better solution.
The point is this: Tweaking is necessary to progress.
— Adapted from “The Tweaker,” Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker.
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