Magic and Innovation

By Jim Euchner, VP of Global Innovation at Goodyear and Editor-in-Chief of Research-Technology Management (RTM)

“Any sufficiently new technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

—Arthur C. Clarke

Innovation is a magical thing. It transforms dross into gold, puts nature at our command, creates something new where there was once nothing. Throughout history, magicians (and charlatans) have used new technology to create illusions for delight and profit. An early use of the electromagnet, for example, was part of an act demonstrating the super-strength of a magician, who could lift an object that even a strongman could not budge. A dash of psychology, a dollop of sleight of hand, and a big dose of showmanship can turn even a simple technological effect into a powerful illusion.

Every year brings its own collection of technologies that are sufficiently new to appear magical. Seventy-five years ago, the year the Industrial Research Institute was founded, xerography was introduced. That same year, the tape recorder, the ballpoint pen (“It writes underwater!”), and the programmable computer were all patented. The latter, of course, resulted in a whole new class of magicians, with their own languages and spells, who continue to startle.

There is a corollary to Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, however: any sufficiently old magic is boring. Once the technology becomes commonplace, we no longer see it with the same wonder. Sadly for magicians, microelectronics and wireless networking have created alternative ways of making things happen apparently by magic. The growing “Internet of things” allows people to command ordinary objects to do extraordinary things. New brain–machine interfaces, cloud computing, broadband wireless, and increasingly sophisticated microelectronic devices may make it hard to conceive of an effect that technology cannot produce. Magic inspires, technology realizes, and magic must inspire again.

Magic shows invoke our wonder with three basic categories of illusions: psychic demonstrations (seeing into the future or the past); transformations (changing one thing into another); and “production” (creating something out of nothing). Articles in this issue, in a whimsical sort of way, reflect these themes.

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