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Forced Innovation

November 14, 2016

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Some illustrations of this can be found in Robert M. Pirsig's 1974 book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." This book, an exposition of the concept of "quality" long before it became a management fad, contains a description of an extended trip by motorcycle.

There are many plot elements in the book that relate to the repair and maintenance of an older motorcycle. In one such repair, pieces of tin cans are used as shim stock, which is something that I've done on occasion, although not for a motorcycle. At other times I've violated the "right tool for the job" paradigm by using a knife as a screwdriver. The pointed tip of a pocket knife works well for philips head screws.

One notable attempted repair with the tools at hand occurred during the Apollo 12 lunar exploration mission. Apollo 12 had the first color camera on the Moon. While standard color video cameras of the period used three imaging tubes, one each for red, green, and blue, the Apollo 12 camera used a single imaging tube in a field-sequential color system. This camera had a mechanical wheel containing color filters to render a color image in sequential frames.

Unfortunately, less than an hour into the mission, astronaut, Alan Bean, pointed the camera at the Sun while mounting it on a tripod. The intense light rendered the imaging tube useless, and it showed an image similar to what might be expected from a stuck filter wheel. Bean was told to try to fix the camera by tapping it with a hammer, an action that might have started a stuck filter wheel. As Bean communicated by radio, "I figured we didn't have a thing to lose. I just pounded it on the top with this hammer that I've got."[1]

Figure caption

Astronaut, Alan Bean, on the lunar surface, alongside Surveyor 3.

Surveyor 3, which landed on the Moon on April 20, 1967, at Mare Cognitum, was the third NASA lunar lander.

(NASA photo by Apollo 12 astronaut, Pete Conrad, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Scientists are forced to do minor innovation while doing experiments. In one case, my forty-five amp furnace kept tripping its fifty amp circuit breaker, since the breaker was over-heating. A small stream of lab air directed towards the breaker solved that problem. I've often gutted pens and markers of various sizes to make suitable tubing connectors. In the Robert Persig tradition, I used a two-pound-size coffee can as a protective enclosure.

As someone who also used a thirty gallon trash bag as an improvised rain coat, I would have expected that climate change might have evoked innovation among early humans, just as it will assuredly do for us in the near future. However, a recent study by a large team of archaeologists demonstrates that innovation among early, Middle Stone Age, humans in southern Africa was not primarily driven by climate change.[2-3] The archaeologists are from the University of Oxford (Oxford, United Kingdom), the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), the University of Bergen (Bergen, Norway), the University of Bradford (Bradford, United Kingdom), and the University of South Africa (Durban, South Africa).[2-3]

Climate change is a proposed primary driver of innovative behavior in humans, especially in the Stone Age in South Africa.[3] The so-called Still Bay (c. 77-73 ka) and Howiesons Poort (c. 65-59 ka) lithic traditions of Middle Stone Age southern Africa were periods of dramatic cultural, and technological innovation by Homo sapiens.[2] The proposed reasons for such innovation and its subsequent disappearance are demography, sea level change, and climate change.[2] Tests of the climate change hypothesis have been difficult, since the climate record has not previously been connected to the archaeological record.[2]

Stone Age innovation

Sudden appearance of artifacts in the Still Bay archaeological record. (Portion of figure 5A from ref. 2, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0.[2]

In order to establish the proper climate record, the archaeological team did radiocarbon and oxygen isotope dating in shellfish, ostrich eggshell fragments, and faunal remains excavated from Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter.[2-3] The samples ranged in age from 98,000 to 59,000 years ago.[3] The data showed significant changes in aridity, rainfall, vegetation, and sea temperature near sites of human occupation.[2]

Klipdrift Shelter and Blombos Cave locations

The locations of the Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter archaeological sites.

(Fig. 1B of ref. 2, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0.[2]

The research team did not find a correlation between the considerable cultural and technological innovations at the South African sites and shifts in climate.[3] Although climate change was evident, the diversity of resources allowed humans to weather these changes. The human species appears to be highly resilient to climatic and environmental instability, and innovation proceeds without notice of these affects.[2-3] Says Karen L. van Niekerk, an author of the study from the University of Bergen,
"Our research points to the fact that changes in long-distance contact, socio-cultural interactions and population movements may be just as important, or more important, for innovation as environmental drivers."[3]

This research was funded by the Clarendon Fund of the University of Oxford, the University of the Witwatersrand, and by the University of Bergen, Norway.[2]

Archaeologists at work in Blombos Cave, South Africa

Archaeologists at work in Blombos Cave, South Africa.

(Photo by Magnus Haaland, University of Bergen.)


  1. Apollo 12 Mission Log, earthtothemoon.com.
  2. Patrick Roberts, Christopher S. Henshilwood, Karen L. van Niekerk, Petro Keene, Andrew Gledhill, Jerome Reynard, Shaw Badenhorst, and Julia Lee-Thorp, "Climate, Environment and Early Human Innovation: Stable Isotope and Faunal Proxy Evidence from Archaeological Sites (98-59ka) in the Southern Cape, South Africa," PLoS ONE, vol. 11, no. 7 (July 6, 2016), Document no. e0157408, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157408. This is an open access publication with a PDF file available here.
  3. Technology and innovation not driven by climate change, The University of Bergen Press Release, September 1, 2016.

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