Determining Elements in breakthroughs

On a separate page I have given my views on possible developments in this century. In this article I propose to share with you some musings on the components of situations and conditions preceding a change in society.

Looking in retrospect at history we see a chain of discoveries that paved the way for a turn of events that led to a completely different outlook and development of society. It may have been a fresh religious faith; discovery of a country - like America -; of knowledge, a skill, instrument, etc.


What elements had these developments in common?

  • A. An existing need in society (to spread one's wings, expansion, fresh outlook, mass communication, etc.)
  • B. Recently acquired skills, know-how, knowledge of properties, substances, ingredients, etc.
  • C. The mind and perseverence of the researcher, inventor, often genius, to combine these elements into a discovery.
  • D. The person or company with a business instinct to fund and bring the invention in exploitation.
  • E. Coïncidence linking any of these elements at the right place, or time.

As an example the rise of the movie industry may be taken. Of the abovementioned components the following played a part:

  • A. The need for mass communication at the end of the 19th century, more free time in the working classes. Growing demand for diversion, beyond the limited audiences in theatres, vaudeville performances and sports events .
  • B. Photographic emulsions had been perfected to a sensitivity to capture an image in an instant. Retention of an image by the eye had already been noted and exploited in toys. Transparent flexible strips to serve as a base for films could be manufactured from nitrate combined with camphor.
  • C. Many inventors in one way or another exploited the three of these discoveries: Muybridge, Le Prince, Marey, and others. See Who ivented the cinéma?.
  • D. The brothers Lumière made it a commercial success, although it should be noted that even they did not see the potential and abandoned cinematography in later years .

The introduction of printing by Johannes Gutenberg (1400 - 68) is another example:

  • A. The spread of universities in the 15th century brought with it a growing demand for literature which could only be hand-copied so far.
  • B. Winepresses were widely in use, production of papersheets had been taken up recently.
  • C. Gutenberg hit upon the idea to use and produce separate metal letters - types - to be set in matrices. He used the newly discovered papersheets instead of vellum, and printed on machines using some principles of winepresses.
  • D. He had to call in a wealthy moneylender, Johan Fust, in the end to finance the discovery. The latter profited most from the invention.

Gutenberg's printing presses facilitated the spread of knowledge which in turn gave an impulse to the Renaissance and contributed to the scientific revolution in the years to come.

Another well-known example is the contribution of the thermometer to public health and life span. The elements being.

  • A. Need for an instrument with a scale to measure temperature exactly.
  • B. The basic principles of the thermometer had already been discovered centuries ago, but had not found application on a larger scale.
  • C. In the course of a relatively short period of time Fahrenheit (1724), Réaumur (1731), Celsius(1742) produced exact scales for the instrument to be used in medicine, and scientificic research.
  • D. Yet, it did not come into medical use until the end of the 19th century.
  • E. Possibly because the time wasn't ripe.

Discovery of America:

  • A. Need to find not only a route to the Far East, but also products of foreign countries making for wealth and funds to finance armies. All this under the pretext of spreading Christian faith.
  • B. Ships and navigational skill to bridge great distances.
  • C. The mind of Columbus to combine the two and pursue exploration.
  • D. Economic exploitation by Portugal and Spain.


  • A. Need for global communication, means for secret communication during the cold war
  • B. Existing technological inventions and programs: the computer relying on transistor and other technical research. Limited scale communiciation between academic researchers
  • C. Various contributors. Sputnik crisis
  • D.

Energy (oil):

  • A. Need for transportable major resource of energy following the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century.
  • B. Oil used on a limited scale and its sources hardly explored
  • C. ?
  • D. Captains of industry/tycoons and explorers developing oil wells and refineries.

Electricity (Tesla helped ushering in a second industrial revolution):

  • A. Inventions (bulb, cinema, telephone) calling for massive supply of electricity
  • B. Existing application of DC electricity (Edison) wanting and not transferable over long distances.
  • C. A genius (Tesla) to develop alternating current, induction motor, etc.
  • D. Westinghouse commercialized it.


  • A. Need for an all encompassing inspiring faith in troubled times in an era of oppression
  • B. Existing myths in small communities, mystic initiation and practices in small groups and a variety of scattered beliefs.
  • C. The mind of a Muhammad, or a Paul, to combine all these elements into a holy script that would serve to lead future generations.
  • D. The emperor Constantine who placed himself at the head of the church in the fourth century AD, so exploiting the faith for ages to come. See the Christ myth. So did Muslim caliphs come into power thanks to the Islamic faith in the seventh century.

A factor not specified is the part of coïncidence playing in the resulting breakthroughs. The genius should be there at the right moment, place and a period of need. Ignited by a vision his enthusiastic dedication may make the ingredients work. In history the part of coincidence has already been noted. The most insignicant detail, or decision, can decide the course of events.

It need not be a genius, other characters may play a part, such as a trickster figure, a person who detects unknowingly weaknesses in existing (social, or political) structures, challenges them and so makes way for a breakthrough, unleashing a transition in society. A Tijl Uilenspiegel, or Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. The mentality of a Felix the Cat, Bart Simpson, Pink Panther. Not necessarily in a positive way as Hitler and Stalin have demonstrated.

We have now come to six elements composing future developments, but one could easily add more and so arrive at a chaotic multilateral model . An obscure idea, catastrophe, or coincidence, may cause a chain of reactions.

Finally one may wonder what the use is of the above categorization..... Its use might be to bring down to us that one is hardly aware of the needs and possibilities lying dormant in the present. We seem unable to cast a glimpse into the future and to fathom the possibilties of the present. Enormous changes are hardly ever anticipated.

So, determining breakthroughs always remains a matter of hindsight.



  • Bronowski, Jacob: The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1979)
  • Cohen H.F.: The scientific revolution. A Historiographical Inquiry. (1994)
  • Cohen, Norman: Cosmos, chaos and the World to come: The ancient roots of Apocalyptic faith
  • Ferguson, Niall: Virtual history. Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997)
  • Fukuyama, Francis: The end of history
  • Huntington, Samuel: The clash of civilizations and the remaking of World Order
  • Kaplan, Robert D.: The ends of the Earth
  • Kuhn Th.S.: The structure of scientific revolutions (1962)
  • Ogle, Richard: Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity And the New Science of Ideas (2007)

Links (most of the links I gave ten years ago have gone dead! These remain and a few new ones):


Latvian translation by Simona Auglis

Responses welcome. Email to manandu@NOSPAMxs4all.nl after deleting NOSPAM from the address.

Created 6 January 2008. Latest revision: 25th April 2016

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