The 30 Year Rule – How Long Does Innovation Take?

by Greg Satell

“Agile” has become the mantra for the digital age. If you don’t move fast, so the thinking goes, you can never be any good, because your competitors will get there first and you’ll be left in the dust. In many circles, this notion has become so well established that no one even thinks to question it anymore.

While agility is a good thing for any organization, innovation is never a single event. For example, while Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it didn’t arrive on the market until 1945 — nearly 20 years later — and that span was shortened because of massive help from the US government.

The problem is that we tend to focus on the commercialization stage, when agility can be an important advantage, but often ignore everything that comes before. And that, unfortunately, leads us to ignore much of what that makes a transformation happen. The truth is that important innovations are rarely created in weeks or months. It usually takes about 30 years.

…Edison Said, Let There Be (Electric) Light

In 1882, just three years after he had almost literally shocked the world with his revolutionary lighting system, Thomas Edison opened his Pearl Street Station, the first commercial electrical distribution plant in the United States. By 1884 it was already servicing over 500 homes.

Up till that point, electric light was mostly a curiosity. While a few of the mighty elite could afford to install generators in their homes — J.P.Morgan was one of the very first — that was beyond the means of  most people. Electrical transmission changed all that and in the ensuing years much of the country wired up.

As the economist Paul David explains in The Dynamo and the Computer, electricity didn’t have a measurable impact on the economy until the early 1920’s — 40 years after Edison’s plant.  The problem wasn’t with electricity itself, Edison quickly expanded his distribution network as did his rival George Westinghouse, but a lack of complementary technologies.

At first, the major application for electricity was electric light, which had a limited effect. To truly impact productivity, factories needed to be redesigned and work itself had to be reimagined. Later, household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines were invented, expanding electricity’s reach further and productivity soared for another 50 years.

Mother of All Demos

In 1984 Apple launched the Macintosh and changed technology forever. Before it came along, personal computers were difficult to use. The Macintosh, however, introduced the mouse, graphic displays and gave computers a real personality. Now, anybody could learn to use one in minutes and actually have fun doing it.

Yet the road to the Macintosh began long before, in December 1968, with Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of all Demos“, in which he showed many of the technologies that Steve Jobs and Apple would later commercialize. These concepts would be further engineered into a working prototype, the Alto, by Xerox PARC.

There have been many theories about why Xerox wasn’t able to commercialize the Alto over the years, but the one that rings most true it is a scene captured in Michael Hiltzik’s book, Dealers of Lightning, in which he tells of the conference where the Alto was first put on display to the company at large. The Xerox Executives weren’t impressed, but their wives, many of whom had formerly been secretaries, were transfixed.

Managers in the 1970’s saw typing up correspondence as secretarial work and crunching numbers something the accounting department did. So things like word processors and spreadsheet programs didn’t really interest them. Early versions of the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows ran into similar barriers in the 1980’s.

It wasn’t until the late 1990’s, or about 30 years after “The Mother of all Demos” that computers had a measurable effect on the US economy.”

New World of Quantum Computing

In 1993, researchers at IBM successfully completed the landmark quantum teleportation experiment. It wasn’t like the machine in Star Trek, the object teleported was only a photon, but it showed that information could be processed through a strange effect called quantum entanglement and that opened up completely new possibilities.

The experiment has been repeated many times and some particles have been transported 100 km, but we’re still a long way from Scotty beaming us up. However, quantum teleportation is important for another reason, it opened the door to quantum computing, a technology that could be thousands — or even millions — of times more powerful than current computers.

Today, companies like Google and IBM are hard at work making quantum computing a reality. Both companies have developed prototypes, which they are ramping up into full scale products. You can even try out IBM’s version online. Another company, D-Wave, is already is already selling a stripped down version of quantum computing to its customers.

Yet quantum computing won’t be available at a large scale for another five or ten years. Again, about thirty years since the initial IBM experiment.

Next Big Thing is Probably 29 Years Old

To be clear, the 30 years rule isn’t a strict parameter, it is more like a rule of thumb than a rule of physics. Sometimes it takes more time for a technology to have an impact, sometimes less. Yet still, we’re talking decades, not years or months. It’s also important to note that it is a widespread phenomenon that cuts across industries and particular fields of endeavor.

Think about that for a minute and it becomes clear why all of the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. The seeds for the technology we have today were sown a long time ago. Every years there are thousands of academic papers that will affect your industry. Tap into that stream of knowledge and you won’t have to run so fast to catch up, you’ll see the next thing coming.

The good news is that, as I explain in my book, Mapping Innovation, top quality research is much easier to access than you might suspect. In fact, most scientists are so strapped for cash, they welcome sincere interest and support from industry. That’s how smart businesses are able to turn academic work into profits.

The truth is that it is more important to prepare than to adapt because by the time a particular trend gains enough traction for you to recognize it and take action, it is usually too late. Once you fall years, if not decades, behind, it’s hard to catch up matter how fast you think you are. The only way to truly prepare for the future is to shape it.


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Greg SatellGreg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.


  1. I’m glad someone else noticed this too. This is a recurring theme I share with people in my keynotes and workshops, and it holds true not just in the areas of high technology where people often notice, but also with things like Gorilla Glass.

    Another time-based link that it is important for people to understand is evaluating the link between development time, useful life, and insights. I wrote about that here:

    Keep innovating!

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