In this era of ours, just about anyone is a man/woman of God—very precisely, a prophet. This looks a lot like the scenario that existed centuries ago, with the success of the Industrial Revolution. At its formative years, just about anyone was an inventor. And that—unlike the scenario it is paired with here—was a good thing.
In 1862, an Englishman, Mr. Thompson, inspired by another invention, thought that humans were generally comfortable with having guns aimed at them, hence invented a camera shaped like a gun—Revolver Camera, it was called. This device took the concept of ‘shooting’ associated with photography and videography quite literally, you can say. Ready? Smile, as I aim a gun-shaped device at you to ‘shoot’ you, not with bullets but to take your picture. Mr. Thompson thought this scenario befitting. Needless to say, though a very intriguing invention, it was woefully unpopular. It unsurprisingly sold little.
In 1949, an American company based in Brooklyn invented what was called ‘Man-from-Mars Radio Hat’. Because isn’t it typical that as we find the need to wear hats, we find ourselves also hankering to listen to the radio? So this device promised consumers both—the pleasure of donning a hat, and of listening to the radio—at the same time. A funny apparel to don, but not necessarily as nonsensical as a device like the whoopee cushion.
In the 1920s, a number of employees in a Canadian rubber company had a eureka moment when they invented the whoopee cushion. A device whose primary purpose is to imitate flatulence. This has stood the test of time, as apparently humans care enough to fool others into thinking that they upon sitting down (and in fact sitting on this piece of device) have in fact released flatulence into the air. They are apparently so crucial to the human ecosystem that they have remained relevant, and are presently selling at around six dollars apiece. They are deemed so vital to even merit accolades—in 2017, an entry was made in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest whoopee cushion ever made.
In 1936, a device called the Hamblin glasses—a ‘laying down reading glasses’—was invented because the manufacturer found the need to provide us all with the means of lying flat on our backs while we read. As an ardent reader myself, I am always one for making small sacrifices for the noble cause of reading—nudge myself a tad from the bed, perhaps sit on the bed with a pillow supporting my back. But here comes a device promising me that while lying flat on my back I could still read. But this seems not too nonsensical to inventors of today as they are what is called ‘horizontal lazy glasses’ and other devices like that selling—each building on this 1936 invention.
Other inventors elsewhere have attempted adding humans to the sleep-while-standing ranks of animals, by providing us with the means of sleeping while we stand—propping one up by the chin or supporting one by the head, as one sleeps comfortably on in a ‘aayalolo’ public bus. One inventor tried attaching umbrellas to women’s shoes—for the rainy days, for the rainy days. Another thought: if babies will keep crawling aimlessly around, then they must as well do some good, so a mop-like fabric was attached to the bellies of their onesies, so that as they crawl about, they mop about—brilliant! Child labour laws will definitely not apply in this case. Another manufacturer thought: if humans will go about sneezing, and sometimes to our dismay, have runny noses that might publicly embarrass us, then we might as well have a toilet-roll-device atop our heads. Sneeze. Quickly grab the toilet roll. Clean up. Embarrassment averted. That is arguably a Coronavirus precautionary device right there.
A Human Touch
It looks like the world has run out of things to invent, does it not?
These are perhaps not good examples to start with when one is making an argument for industry as one of Africa’s sure tickets to mattering in this highly Industrialised Age. All these crazy ideas are but indispensable by-products in industry’s centuries’ longlist of great ideas. Inventions upon inventions have made the world a better place than that inherited by them. These stock of human inventions, like all aspects of life, are a bouillabaisse of differing items—from crucial, life-saving inventions to completely nonsensical ones.
Yet none of these worthless inventions take away from the sociological reality the world has seen itself through—a sociological reality which has comprised the utilisation of the natural world, in all its varied forms, to our human advantage. Human beings have found ways of mining the world we have inherited, and in doing so we have come to find this to be true: the world is not in itself just an end but a means to an end, which when adequately mined is capable of spawning manmade creations—mind blowing artificial creations. Creations which can help make the world we have inherited a little more tolerable.
Of course something had to give. We humans have been tapping into our inventive side each passing day since the Industrial Revolution. The Revolution has showed us that when we apply ourselves to the study of human needs, and attempt providing solutions to these needs, what we derive is human-made creations that complement the natural world. The Industrial Revolution and the influence following it has showed us that we are capable of the unthinkable when we apply ourselves. Years spent at this has showed as the enrichment this innovative spirit can bring—to individuals and nations alike. Something had to give with the Industrial Revolution so pardon these underground nonsensical inventions—I for one think this toilet roll atop the head invention isn’t that bad an idea.
It is true that whenever one makes mention of ‘ancestors’, whenever we say certain things like ‘what would our ancestors think of us?’ either in our daily lives, or national lives, or in our individual specialised fields such as the legal field, one cannot help but give a sarcastic yet true response, as one gentleman John Green aptly put it, and I paraphrase: our ancestors, depending on their times of demise, would for the most part be standing glaring like fools, in awe of all these inventions we have come to perceive as normal today—at the internet, the aeroplane, the mobile phones, state-of-the-art medical equipment, man on the moon, man attempting mass, all these realities would be gibberish to them.
Let’s be frank, it is often same for us. When left to wonder—which we, Africans, find ourselves doing a lot—we are left to quip as a senile grandmother of a friend once did, “Where do all the people go after you switch it off?” Where do all the people go after we switch off our TV sets? These are questions we might still find ourselves asking when we take time off our busy schedules to ponder over our technologically-fuelled reality.
And we are not dim-witted in these ponderings. These leviathans of innovations we have now at our disposals could never have happen if they had not begun with series of tiny, tiny steps. Humankind couldn’t possibly have started off right from hunting and gathering with the most basic of tools, straight to flying off to the moon. We possibly couldn’t have at our very early days conceived of such a world has we have it now. This giant-leap technological world ought to have kicked off with tiny, tiny, quaint steps. One brick at a time, this industrial, technological world empire was built. Tiny steps are the reality to our success, that is why one ought to be really pissed, when they see their country, continent, kinsfolk playing with these tiny steps—not taking this very crucial economic/socioeconomic tool seriously.
A Sociological Difference, not a Biological One
The question many keep asking whenever the Industrial Revolution is mentioned is, “why did it happen first in Britain?” This inquiry almost always elicits Eurocentric responses—and these Eurocentric responses almost always come from the—you guessed it—British and European. So we are going to skip that question.
The question you and I perhaps ought to be asking is, “Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution happen first in Africa?” Because even though Britain did beat countries like China and India to it, these countries were great industrial contenders, during that 18th century period. Would something as crucial and influential as the Industrial Revolution have happened in a continent like Africa?—that should be the second question our introspective selves ought to be asking. A negative response to this inquiry is perhaps acceptable, but what would be woefully tragic is if this negative response has behind it feigned biological explanations as imperialist, racist minds would have us believe. Any negative response given to this inquiry must be so done with this sociological explanation.
There is a sociological problem persisting in the continent, one that hides itself behind this word: culture. We, Africans, are accustomed to having things just as they are, just as we came to meet them. “This is how we have always done it”, our anthem. The Caucasian, on the other hand, seem to always yearn to have things different, to have more than they are presented with—‘Oliver asks for more’ that sums the Caucasian up pretty much. These two polar sociological leanings though inherently not bad, have the ability to spawn such damaging adverse effects—in our case, the positions of last in this modern global race; in their case, the positions of tyrants who employed every means possible to have their way. Let us focus on the good their ‘wanting more’ has brought the world; God knows we shall be talking a lot about the bad their ‘yearn for more’ has brought us—subsequently.
Were they better humans then? Were they much more mentally prepared and predisposed to change than we could ever be? That is a racist question that calls quickly, the answer ‘of course not’. Heaven knows the Industrial Revolution of the West was nowhere near smooth-sailing. There existed in these countries, strong opponents of Industrialisation. There were Romantics who abhorred industrialisation to its very core, for they insisted that this new world order disturbed the natural world—trees were cut down for trains to have their way. There was no way such a social order could mean anything but evil.
They saw this new industrialised world as an evil, demoralising, inhumane economic order that could only spawn end products such as greed, more greed, and unparalleled inhumanity. And they were right, you know. Because at its very height, these seemed to be the end products the Industrial Revolution was capable of spawning. There were writers like Charles Dickens who saw opportunity to tell stories that reflected this abhorrent reality the industrial revolution had inflicted upon the world—“Oliver asks for more”. The poor boy Oliver, Pip, and many other characters created by Dickens all served the plot of decrying industrialisation. And again this outcry was then very valid.
Or were they better humans who could see through this fog the Industrial Revolution, in its very early years, had created to see a better day—a day like ours, when astonishing inventions, and an overall betterment of lives would result? Were they better humans who could only birth geniuses such as the Newtons, Galileos the Wright Brothers, the Einsteins, Jobs, and Gates? Of course not. These things are not exclusive to the West. We have our own versions of remarkable humans, all capable of causing indelible marks upon the world, in very diverse fields. Our problem, as a people still remains with the mining…
Inability to Mine
This is a topic for another day, but permit me to give a preview with this quote from Kofi Annan, “Any society that does not succeed in tapping into the energy and creativity of its [populace] will be left behind.”
Mother of Invention
Looking at the history of industry, we see ringing true this proverb: ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ From its humble beginnings in the textile industry to its slow but steady pace towards inventions as otherworldly as the space shuttle, we have seen inventions upon inventions rising out of the need to provide answers to human needs. For the First Industrial Revolution it was necessity that drove human inventions.
In modern times, Africa’s necessity is quite different—it is a necessity not born out of a direct lack of inventions—for the developed world has filled the earth with inventions to last us a lifetime, so much so that we seem to be running out of things to invent. Africa’s need to industrialise is more of an economic necessity, one born out of this globalised era of ours. Because Africa seems to be running a losing race in this highly globalised, highly Industrialised Age. For instance, Africa does not ‘need’ to invent vehicles; Africa ‘must’ invent vehicles. The world does not need Africa to become an inventor, in fact the world would rather we remain in our present situation—largely consumers. African countries need to become inventors for their own good. The world is not left with a gaping transportation hole if Africa or Ghana does not partake in the invention of vehicles, but Africa is left with a gaping economic and socioeconomic hole in this highly industrialised, globalised world if she does not partake in this propitious industry—if she does not cut for herself a piece of this profitable cake of science and innovation.
The Very Fortunate, Unfortunate People
The truth however is that we are quite unfortunate. Because when the high-school boys, the Wright brothers sat in their shop laboriously trying to invent an airplane, they had no billion-dollar, massively-experience ultra-modern aircrafts companies to compete with. When Alexander Bell invented the telephone, he did not have the likes of Apple, a trillion-dollar, far-advanced technological company to compete with. These people had to make their contributions to the world—an almost empty world of technology. Any call on Africa to step up her innovation game does so, calling the continent to compete with global giants very much steeped in the world of innovation and technology. It is like starting a marathon, with one’s competitors given miles and miles of head start. This is a difficult race.
But Africa is concurrently lucky in this regard. Because when the Wright Brothers conceived the plan of inventing the airplane, they had comparatively little human knowledge on the matter from which to tap. When compared to this Information Age of ours, these great pioneers had scant knowledge from which to tap. We have a wealth of knowledge—tried, tested, and effective—from which to borrow.
As Africa gears towards a unified phase of industrialisation, we should be curious to see the niche a country like Ghana, having championed African solidarity fervently for decades, will cut for herself. The world can never run out of needs—needs are insatiable. Hence the need for innovation will remain endless.
And who knows, maybe a time will come for us too when we are far advanced in our industrialisation journey that we find room to invent the trivial—a whoopee cushion, an egg boiler, a radio hat, a baby mob onesie.
Can I get an amen?
[Published in the Business & Financial Times, B&FT - 3 March, 2021]