Inventions: right here, right now

“Right here, right now” concept is something we do not have in Italy. Timing is not our forte and we always feel in the right place (I mean in general, of course). The first time I heard “right here, right now” was listening to Van Halen’s Panama, the live version by Sammy Hagar on CD2 of The Best of Both Worlds. He gives a fairly long speech in which he pronounces those four words, which also recall their 1992 song Right Now, that has become a fairly common piece in Republican election campaigns (despite the veiled disapproval of Van Halen brothers). Right Here Right Now is also one of Fatboy Slim’s most famous songs and the only one I really like, partially back in vogue in 2019 with the remix pro Greta Thunberg. However, no one has ever managed to make me really understand the concept until I read Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, not very simple, but it teaches a lot and forced my mother to stop listening to me when I speak.

Right place, wrong time: the Phaistos Disc

Modern printing often concerns paper and almost always ink, but historically it has been also engraving, especially in the beginning, such as with the cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia. For this form of writing large hollow cylinders were used, such as the Cylinder of Cyrus and the Cylinders of Nabonidus, both of the VI century BC. We tend to fix the birth of book printing with that of woodcut, which appeared in China before 220 AD, but was not applied to paper until the VII century. As we know, the press has allowed the dissemination and development of culture, information and conspiracy theories, like Internet.

However, there is an invention prior to all the others. In 1908, Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered, in the excavations of the Minoan palace of Phaistos, in Crete, a clay disk on which various hieroglyphs arranged in a spiral were engraved in a clockwise direction. Its purpose and original place of production remain controversial. The engraved text is not clear, perhaps it is a script, and even the authenticity itself has sometimes been questioned (but most archaeologists believe it to be true). It was probably built between 1850 and 1600 BC and is characterized by the entire text inscribed with reusable characters. German linguist Herbert Brekle declared it the first movable type printing document. It was obviously a rudimentary printing system, much more antiquated than the Chinese mobile printing of Bi Sheng (1040 AD) and the more advanced and fundamental one of Gutenberg (around 1450 AD). It was indeed rudimentary, but for its time it really represented something futuristic, so why does the Phaistos Disc remain a curious archaeological find and did not represent a turning point in the development of humanity? Jared Diamond notes the absence of any subsequent advances of the movable type in Minoan culture, citing this as evidence of the unpredictability of the invention. Probably this happened because it was not practical and produced objects without sufficient social and economic relevance to support its development, but even just its existence. Also according to Diamond, sometimes the inventions have a later development, while other times they remain isolated from the technological context of the time. In Greece, only a few centuries later, philosophy and theater flourished, later the eastern part of the Roman Empire was undoubtedly the most intellectual, so the place could be the right one, much more than others, but it was not yet the right time. There was no lack of the right here factor, but that of the right now.

Phaistos Disc

Right time, wrong place: New World’s wheel

In the beginning there were the sleds, then the tree trunks and finally the wheel. It was probably invented by Sumerians, but was used for pottery making (but there are perhaps more ancient examples in Iran). For the use of wheel for transport, there are no certain dates or places, but many experts believe that Elamites were first. We are talking about a period from 6000 to 2000 BC at most. At that time, the great migration to Americas had already taken place, as obviously Australia and sub-Saharan Africa were already inhabited, but while in these last two areas wheel never came until the arrival of the colonizers (except for the Empire of Ethiopia), something strange happened in the New World. As in Australia the aborigines came very close to developing agriculture, some peoples of Central America came very close to transport by wheel. In the lands that belonged to Olmecs, in present-day Mexico, several artifacts with wheels dating back to 1500 BC have been found, but they were toys. Usage of wheel for transport would perhaps have developed within a few centuries, if Christopher Columbus had not arrived in America. However, there were some problems with it: there were no animals large enough to tow a vehicle with wheels. The bison are difficult to tame and live further North, the lamas live further South and in any case both animals are positioned beyond geographical limits that are difficult to cross. American horses became extinct shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens. In Central America, the historical and therefore social conditions existed for wheel transport to develop, but this was not enough. For the wheel to evolve and spread, animals were also needed for towing. There was no lack of the right now factor, but that of the right here.

An example of Olmec wheels

Right here, right now: Vincenzo Tiberio

Vincenzo Tiberio was born in 1869 in Sepino, in Molise, an Italian region so small and sparsely populated that in Italy we joke about its real existence. He studied medicine and also for this reason the Department of Medicine and Health Sciences of the University of Molise was named after him. Already during his studies he began with bacteriology. In the courtyard of his house he had a well for rainwater, which Tiberio used to drink, but he noted that when the well was cleaned of mold, he and his family suffered from enteritis, which did not happen in the presence of mold. He correlated the two facts, albeit incorrectly, but this allowed him to discover that the therapeutic action of molds was linked to some substances present in them, endowed with bactericidal and chemotactic action. He understood that this action was due to some molecules produced by molds, with which he prepared a substance with antibiotic effects. It was not exactly like that, indeed, Tiberio once again did not understand exactly what was happening, but his work was still much more advanced than that of Alexander Fleming, who later became famous for antibiotics. The difference between the two was that probably Tiberio arrived at almost correct discoveries following almost correct research, while Fleming, by chance, arrived at an epochal discovery. However, what we know about Tiberio’s discovery and therefore the invention is less certain, which is why a debate is still underway on the actual invention of an antibiotic-based drug. However, this uncertainty was not the cause of gis historical failure. Italy at the time was in dire need of antibiotics and was still one of the most industrialized countries. I was “right here, right now”, but Tiberio never made his works public, perhaps because he was too busy on other academic and medical fronts, so his precious research was even useless. There is therefore a third factor and it is purely human. It is difficult to say that a single man can really impact the history of all humanity, but it is more true that humanity creates times, times create opportunities and discoveries sooner or later come out, so much so that Fleming actually arrived at his discovered a few decades after Tiberio.

Vincenzo Tiberio

Inventions have been and will be countless, some unique and some independent, but not all have been successful, but perhaps they will. Perhaps only a global society like ours can be the first not missing anything. This step would represent a uniqum in the history of mankind, which would probably accelerate (or perhaps has already accelerated) our development further and incredibly. Let’s not waste this historic passage with extinction, please.

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