An idea pops into your head and as far as you’re concerned, it’s all yours. You call it ‘my idea’, the unique and precious child of your imagination. But think back to that moment when it first appeared in your mind; it came out of nowhere, completely unannounced. It hijacked your brain and colonised your head.
You didn’t have the idea, it had you.
In 1905 a junior clerk named Albert was struck by an idea so strange, so completely original he was sure the thought was his alone. And he should know; after all he worked in the Patents Office. So imagine young Einstein’s surprise to learn that three other minds were already working on ‘his’ Theory of Relativity.
Thomas Edison was not the only one to imagine the light bulb. He wasn’t even the first; both William Sawyer and Joseph Swan were a whole year ahead of him.
It’s the same story for everything from the gramophone to the telegraph, the jet engine to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection; the history of invention is a race between minds that have all been mysteriously hijacked by the same idea.
If it’s a race, what fires the starter’s pistol? Sometimes it’s an exciting new technology, sometimes it’s just the ‘spirit of the times’.
Sometimes it’s because a problem has gotten so bad that lots of people start looking for a solution: the invention of the polio vaccine in 1950 was probably inevitable because so many great minds wanted a cure.
We ‘have ideas’ in much the same way as we ‘have a cold’ – we are temporary hosts, a warm place for an idea to grow and evolve until they’re ready to colonise other minds and ultimately, entire communities.
Ideas are not ours. We are theirs.