Novelty is novel – the more things change, the more they stay the same

by Edward Henkler on December 30, 2014

This is part of an occasional series on the lessons we can learn from history; see also Net Neutrality. The December 2014 Smithsonian magazine includes two articles which remind us that novelty is not novel, someone else has almost always been there and done that before. One article discusses the evolution from horses to cars and then cars to driverless cars. The second tells us that Starbucks is hardly the first coffeehouse. For those of you who were drinking coffee in the 60’s and 70’s, this story goes just a bit further back.

With the exception of a few diehard pedestrians, most folks understand that cars have the right of way nowadays but how many of you know the origin of “jaywalker”? In the late 1890’s, the situation was reversed and streets were filled with pedestrians. A battle ensued as cars were introduced to the masses and by the early 1920’s a tipping point was reached which might have led to the permanent marginalization of the automobile. Thanks (perhaps) to an aggressive public relations campaign, cars finally supplanted pedestrians. Part of that success was achieved by adopting the term “jaywalker”, based on a derogatory term for a country bumpkin, “jay”. As Google and others begin to develop driverless cars, might we be embarking on a very similar journey? Will we need more or less paved roads and who is responsible when a driverless car is in an accident?


The second story surprised me even more. Borrowing directly from the article, “A half-century before Starbucks, Teddy Roosevelt’s family imported coffee culture to the United States.” The genesis was the decision to give Teddy strong cups of coffee (and puffs of a cigar) when he was battling asthma attacks as a young child. His love of coffee continued to adulthood and was undoubtedly a contributing factor as his children and other family members opened the Brazilian Coffee House in NYC. The coffeehouse idea wouldn’t be that striking but the next detail is. Again quoting directly from the article, “As an analog precursor to Starbucks’ laptop brigade, each table at the Brazilian Coffee House had a compartment furnished with ink, envelopes and paper.”

The bottom line is that novelty is not novel and history truly does seem to repeat itself. Studying our past may make us more seemingly innovative.

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