Six years before the Homebrew Computer Club had its first meeting in 1969, Honeywell launched its kitchen computer – the Honeywell H316.  It looked like this:



Advertised in the Neiman-Marcus catalog, this was one of the world’s first home computers.  Wired describes it like this:

Cooking up a gourmet holiday meal will be a snap, the department store promised. Push a few buttons, and — presto! — a shiny orange-red, white, and black machine will compute the perfect five-course meal. No more silly culinary errors. The days of your wife slaving away in her Chanel apron will vanish into memory, and all those blinking lights will add to your holiday cheer.

All you needed was space for this 100-pound machine. And about $10,000. And a teletype. And a paper tape reader. And some serious engineering skills.

If the lady of the house wanted to build her family’s dinner around broccoli, she’d have to code in the green veggie as 0001101000. The kitchen computer would then suggest foods to pair with broccoli from its database by “speaking” its recommendations as a series of flashing lights. Think of a primitive version of KITT, without the sexy voice.

“What that means is you have to be able to decode the lights in your brain,” says Spicer of the Computer History Museum. Or at least remember the pattern and look up what it meant. At that rate, dinner might be ready next week. “The reason this is such a joke, a gag item, was that there was no real human-readable I/O [input/output] for it.”

This story illustrates why new ideas often spread so slowly.  They always spread though an S-Curve:

The time it takes to work through the period marked X always takes long than we expect it to.  One of the reasons for this is that it takes some time to figure out what an idea is for.

The Future is Co-Created

The story of the Honeywell H316 demonstrates a few important innovation points:

  • Timing is important.  The right idea at the wrong time is still wrong.  It’s entirely possible to see the future now, but to be unable to capitalise on this vision because the world isn’t ready for it yet.  People often have difficulty in telling you what they need – but you can experiment together to figure out what will work.
  • You can’t figure out an entirely new business model without feedback from the market. Chris Anderson tells the story of the H316 in his latest book Makers:

    Technologists had long predicted that computing would find a place in the average home—the Moore’s Law trend of declining price and increasing power practically guaranteed that day would eventually come. But they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want one. Computing was then used for tabulating census results and company accounting, running scientific simulations, and designing nuclear weapons—big, serious number-crunching. What need did a home have for that? Companies from IBM to AT&T’s Bell Labs got their best minds to brainstorm how a computer would be used in the future home, and came up with precious little.

    The most common prediction was that it would be used for recipe-card management. Indeed, in 1969 Honeywell even offered a $10,000 “kitchen computer” (official name: the “H316 Pedestal Model”), which was promoted on the cover of the Neiman-Marcus catalog to do just that—it was stylishly designed, with a built-in cutting board. (There is no evidence that any actually sold, not least because the very modern cook would have to enter data with toggle switches and read the recipes displayed in binary blinking lights.)

    Yet when the truly personal—“desktop”—computer did eventually arrive with the Apple II and then the IBM PC, countless uses quickly emerged, starting with the spreadsheet and word processor for business and quickly moving to entertainment with video games and communications. This was not because the wise minds of the big computer companies had finally figured out why people would want one, but because people found new uses all by themselves.

    Honeywell made a big bet, and for it to payoff, they had to get every hypothesis about the market right in advance.  The odds of doing this are, well, slim.

  • The Future is Co-Created. This is the much catchier way to restate the previous point.  We build these new opportunities together with the people that will benefit from our new ideas.  It’s co-creation.  Nilofer Merchant coined the phrase “the future is co-created” and she’s right:

    Instead of capturing value, let’s find new ways of creating value, together. Think of collaborators as those you work with. Let’s have co-creators design what to build. Let’s ask communities to create scale. And, when we embed this new social language — words such as collaboration and purpose and community — into our discussions, value creation will flow. Relationships are to the social era, what efficiency was to the industrial era. And we all remember what relationships are built on, don’t we? Trust. After decades of building business on capital, oil, land and silicon, trust will be our foundation for what we create next.

    Trust is now one of our most important assets.

Inventors often don’t know what their new idea is really good for.  It is something that we have to discover.  Greg Satell says that disruptive innovation is crappy – in its first version it doesn’t look like much at all.

You can see that with the H316.  If you were skeptical about the future of home computing, it would be overwhelmingly tempting to use the H316 to mock the entire concept – that’s often the first stage in responding to disruptive innovations.

But the crappiness is an important step.  It is what allows us to engage with people, and if we design the opportunity correctly, it is what lets them help us make our idea better. And that is when an idea really starts to take off.

If you’re trying to get your great new idea to spread, co-creation is one of your most powerful tools.

Via Innovation for Growth