IN the mid-18th century, or so the story goes, a worker in a cotton factory in the north of England called Jenny accidentally knocked over her spinning wheel.
Looking on, her boss, James Hargreaves, noticed that the device kept working as normal, with the spindle now pointed upright.
In a ‘Eureka’ moment, he realised there was no particular reason why the spindles of the spinning wheel had to be horizontal, as they always had been, and that he could place them vertically in a row instead, speeding up the entire factory process.
Hargreaves’s brainwave in 1764 led to the invention of his ‘Spinning Jenny’ and transformed the cotton weaving industry at a stroke, at a time when demand was far out-stripping supply.
The industry became the biggest driver of the industrial revolution in England, although poor old Jenny dissolved into the footnotes of history and didn’t receive a penny for her inspired clumsiness.
The ‘Spinning Jenny’ was one of the great inventions of its age, although, like many great inventions, it had an initial downside. It meant factories could employ less workers and still rack up bigger profits, which was good news for the owners of the “dark, satanic mills” and bad news for the poor and huddled masses.
Indeed, it’s said that another inventor, one with a greater social conscience, Thomas Earnshaw, destroyed a similar device he had built before Hargreaves, fearing he might be taking bread from the mouths of the poor.
Two hundred and fifty years on, we can afford to ignore such negativity as we heap praise on Hargreaves and his invention.
We can see that better, more productive machinery may mean short-term pain for the poor worker, but that the long-term gain is far greater.
The employment of the poorest people — usually women and children, in the case of the cotton industry — in the mass production of tedious, exhausting factory tasks is far away from the idyllic world we want to create. Better a machine does it faster.
We have come to the same realisation about many other modern inventions that have changed our lives which were initially feared: Radio, TV, the motor car...
All, in their early days, were perceived as new-fangled fly-by-night gadgets at best; at worst, as works of the devil’s hand which would never catch on.
The debate over which is the most beneficial invention in the history of humanity is never-ending, but a far more interesting question is: Which invention has changed humanity the most.
There are many contenders: From the apparently mundane, such as the washing machine and fridge; to the spectacular, such as the telescope that allowed us to see the heavens, and the telephone that allowed us to hear people in another town.
In the past decade, we have a new contender for the invention that has changed us the most: The iPhone. This week marked the tenth anniversary of the Apple gadget and, truly, in the western world at least, it has transformed us beyond recognition.
A billion have been sold and we touch, swipe and pinch them 2,600 times a day — a million times a year on average.
We spend a third of our days on them, and the way we touch them has already changed the way our minds work, stimulating and growing the same part of our brains that concert violinists use to play music.
They have made us fluent in the fastest growing language in human history — emoji.
On the plus side, smartphones have been connected to a drop in drug addiction in young people, with experts believing that the endorphin rush from receiving a social media ‘like’ has eradicated the need to find a fix. On the minus side, that sense of needing a fix from the gadget has given rise to a new medical condition — nomophobia: fear of being without your phone.
But there are two interesting things to note about the iPhone.
First, unlike most great inventions, it doesn’t make our world or the world at large a better place per se. It doesn’t free up our time, it drains it. It doesn’t make our lives safer — indeed, the number of deaths of motorists and pedestrians they cause can only be estimated.
The iPhone was never intended as a necessity. Rather, it is the embodiment of consumerism. It isn’t primarily targeted for use in our working lives, but in our free time.
It’s an invention for the idle; for those with time on their hands.
Even radio, TV and the internet had their informative side, as well as their entertainment side, from early on. From news broadcasts to shipping forecasts, they opened up the world to us in a good way.
What are the vast majority of people doing on their iPhones? Checking their Facebook feed, taking selfies, ‘liking’ pictures of friends eating food on their holiday...
Which brings me to my second point of contention regarding the iPhone. Not only is their value to humanity practically worthless, but it could be argued that they actually are doing more damage than good.
In an obscenely quick passage of time, they have turned us into a planet of zombies.
If you had walked along the street of any city in the western hemisphere in 2006, you would have seen people engaging with their surroundings, heads up, looking and listening to the world around them. Apart from the odd person texting or talking into their mobile phone — yes, smartphones actually have a telephone function too, would you believe? — this would have been the scene.
Today, go to your local high street and see how the iPhone has changed us. The huddled masses are back with a vengeance, as people walk, heads down, hunched over their precious gadget, laughing, swiping, tapping while the world passes them by.
It’s sad, depressing, and, well, unhumanlike, and it’s getting worse. A decade after James Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny was built, anyone could have entered a cotton factory and seen the positive difference it had made. Apart from Apple, does anyone else benefit from their smartphone?
Many great inventions down the years have unshackled people in some way, the iPhone is the first to put shackles back on them.
In a recent BBC show, Britain’s Greatest Invention, seven celebrities championed a different contender for that title, in categories such as concrete, the jet engine, the fridge, the mobile phone, the steam engine, and the television.
The winner, voted by viewers, was the invention of penicillin, by Alexander Fleming in 1928, billed with no little fanfare as ‘The discovery that saved us all’.
It was championed by former newsreader Angela Rippon, who had TB as a child, and it is estimated to have saved at least 200 million lives in less than a century.
Now that’s what I call smart...