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What can Silicon Valley learn from tinned food?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019  
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Tim Harford | BBC

October 2, 2019

Canned food

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If you played a word-association game with the phrase "Silicon Valley", you would be unlikely to come up with the phrase "tinned food".

Silicon Valley stands for cutting-edge technology, bold ideas that change the world. Nobody would say the tin can was cutting-edge technology, although the more literal-minded might make that claim for the tin-opener.

Yet, in its day, tinned food was as revolutionary as anything now being pitched by Bay Area start-ups.

And its story reveals how surprisingly little some deep dilemmas around innovation have changed in the past 200 years or so.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme's sources and listen to all the episodes online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

First, how do we incentivise good ideas?

There's the lure of a patent, of course, or first-mover advantage. But if you really want to encourage fresh thinking, offer a prize. Self-driving cars are a good example.

In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) offered $1m (£600,000 at the time) to the first vehicle to find its way across a course in the Mojave Desert.

The result was pure Wacky Races - vehicles caught fire, flipped over, crashed through fences and ground to a halt because they were confused by tumbleweed. The prize was unclaimed.

Some of the vehicles which took part in the 20004 Darpa Challenge

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However, a year later, the Stanford Team successfully completed the second round of the Grand Challenge, winning $2m (£1.6m) for its efforts, and within a decade, autonomous cars were reliable enough to let loose on public roads.

The Darpa prize was hardly the first competition to encourage innovation.

In 1795, the government of France offered a prize of 12,000 francs for inventing a method of preserving food. It was eventually claimed by Nicolas Appert, a Parisian grocer and confectioner credited with the development of the bouillon or stock cube and - less plausibly - the recipe for chicken Kiev.

Nicola Appert

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Through trial and error, Appert found if you put cooked food in a glass jar, plunged the jar into boiling water and then sealed it with wax, the food wouldn't go off.

Why was the French government interested in preserving food? For the same reason Darpa was interested in vehicles that could navigate themselves across deserts - with a view to winning wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte was an ambitious general when the prize was announced. By the time it was awarded, he was France's emperor, about to launch his disastrous invasion of Russia. Napoleon may or may not have said: "An army marches on its stomach," but he was clearly keen to broaden his soldiers' provisions from smoked and salted meat.

Appert's laboratory was an early example of a common phenomenon - military needs spurring innovations that transform the economy.

From GPS to Apple's iPhone to Arpanet, which became the internet, Silicon Valley is built on technologies first funded by the US Department of Defense.

But even when ideas come from the public sector, it sometimes takes a culture of entrepreneurship to explore what they can do.

Appert wrote up his culinary experiments in a book later published in English as The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years.

Meanwhile another Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, started applying the techniques to containers made of tin, not glass. But when he wanted to commercialise his idea, he decided to sail across the English Channel.

Why? Too much French bureaucracy, according to Norman Cowell, former lecturer in food science at Reading University.

He argues Britain's financial system of the time was entrepreneurial, with plenty of venture capitalists prepared to take risks.

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