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The Cultural Base

Prehistoric cave dwellers could make exceedingly few material inventions, for they had  very little to work with. Even the bow andarrow include a number of inventions and techniques-s-notching the bow ends, tying the bowstring, hafting and pointing the arrow, plus the idea and technique of shooting it. Not until these components were invented was it possible to invent the bow and arrow. By the cultural base, we mean the accumulation of knowledge and technique available to the inventor. As the cultural base grows, an increasing number of inventions and discoveries become possible. The invention of the geared wheel provided a component which has been used in countless inventions. The discovery of electromagnetism and the i,nvention of the vacuum tube, the transistor, and the microchip provided necessary components 'for hundreds of more recent inventions. "Unless the cultural base provides enough earlier inventions and discoveries, an invention cannot be completed. Leonardo da Vinci in the late fifteenth century sketched many machines which were entirely workable in principle and detail, but the technology of his day was incapable of building them. His drawings for the aerial bomb, hydraulic pump, air-conditioning unit, helicopter, machine gun, military tank, and many others were clear and workable, but the fifteenth century lacked the advanced metals, the fuels, the lubricants, and the technical skills necessary to carry his brilliant ideas into practical reality. Many inventive ideas have had to wait until the supporting gaps in knowledge and technique were filled in. The recent "knowledge explosion" is often cited as the source of modern lu1 ovation. This is another way of saying that the cultural base is rapidly growing and is accessible to a growing portion of our people. When all the supporting knowledge has been developed, the appearance of an invention or discovery becomes almost a certainty. In fact, it is quite common for an invention or discovery to be made independently by several persons at about the same time. Burnout [1950, pp. 90-102], a sociologist who specialized in the study of social change, listed 148 such inventions and discoveries, ranging from the discovery of sun spots, independently discovered by Galileo, Fabrics, And Harriott, all in 1611, to the invention  of the airplane by Langley (1893-189 ), Wright (189&-1901), and perhaps others. In fact, disputes over who was first with an invention or a scientific discovery are common and sometimes acrimonious [Merton, 1957c]. When the cultural base provides all the supporting items of knowledge, it is very probable that one or more, imaginative persons will put these items together for a new invention or
discovery. This is one reason new weapons systems are developed endlessly. It is in the .nature of science and technology that anything we can build, any advanced people can build. And, so the rationale goes, our enemies will build such weapons whether we do or not, so let's get on with it. Of course, this leads to an endless and fruitless arms race which can be limited only by international agreements which we seem unable to reach

CROSS-FERTILIZATION. The great importance of the cultural base is revealed by the principle of cross-fertilization, which states that discoveries and inventions in one field became useful in an entirely different field. Pasteur's germ theory of disease grew out of his efforts to tell France's vintners why their wine turned sour. The vacuum tube, developed for radio, made possible the electronic computer, which now aids research in nearly everything from astronomy to zoology. Certain radioactive  aterials, by-products of the search for more  deadly weap ns, are now invaluable in medical diagnosis, therapy, and research. Image intensifiers, developed for night fi~hting in Vietnam, are now widely used bv naturalists
for field research. Most of the present uses of computers and lasers were not even imagined when they were invented. Stouffer's studies [1949], designed to show the armed  services how to get more effective fighting men, also provided knowledge that was useful to students of group dynamics, race relations, and several other fields of sociology. THE EXPONENTIAL PRINCIPLE. This principle states that, as the cultural base grows, its possible uses tend to grow in a geometric ratio. To illustrate: If we have only two chemicals in a laboratory, only one combination (A-B) is possible; with three chemicals, four combinations are possible (A-B-C, A-B, A-C, and B-C); with four chemicals, ten combinations; with five chemicals, twenty-five; and so on. As the size of the cultural base grows by addition, the possible combinations of these elements grow by multiplication. This helps to explain today's high rate of discovery and invention [Hamblin et al., 1973]. A vast accumulation of scientific technical knowledge is shared by all the civilized societies, and from this base new inventions and discoveries flow in a rising tide

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