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The Importance

of Being Unimportant


edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Published January 24, 2021


Some of the deepest ideas seem obvious in hindsight. Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin were not the first biologists to investigate the idea of evolution. But the mechanism of variation and natural selection (later expanded with genetics) was so intuitively powerful that Darwin’s most zealous advocate, Thomas Henry Huxley, is said to have reflected after reading The Origin of Species, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that.”

In Sir Hubert Henderson’s short textbook, Supply and Demand (1922), with a foreword by John Maynard Keynes himself, there is a less momentous but deeply intriguing section titled “The Importance of Being Unimportant.” It expresses the unintuitive idea that, under the right conditions, it is desirable to be a very small part of something big.

A good example in Henderson’s book is the dynamics of setting wages for workers at different stages of production. In the manufacture of steel, coal miners were extremely important — coal, once converted to a purer form of carbon, is needed to remove the oxygen from iron ore — and their strikes could inflict severe economic damage. (Indeed, a coal strike may have played an indirect role in the sinking of the Titanic.) But the miners’ leverage was limited because a big wage increase would have severely damaged the British steel industry in the near term, and because steelmakers could have eventually switched to American or European coal. Smelting workers, by contrast, were also indispensable, but they managed to extract high wages because the cost of their labor had a much smaller impact on the steelmakers’ bottom line.

Actually, Henderson was standing on the shoulder of a giant, Alfred Marshall, who had made parallel observations on the building trades three decades earlier. In the late 19th century, masons and carpenters were much more important than plasterers to housing construction, a reality reflected in the fact that their wages accounted for a substantial part of building costs. But the plasterers had the upper hand in wage bargaining because builders could more readily absorb the cost of plasterers’ demands to keep construction on schedule.

Even today, some unimportant (in terms of value added) but essential trades remain — notably, the job of the stationary engineer, a skilled blue-collar worker who watches over potentially lethal boilers and elevators.

Marshall also presciently noted that markets have a way of foiling such gatekeepers. The bells tolled for those well-heeled plasterers once the U.S. Gypsum Company introduced drywall, which all but replaced lath-and-plaster construction.

Even today, some unimportant (in terms of value added) but essential trades remain — notably, the job of the stationary engineer, a skilled blue-collar worker who watches over potentially lethal boilers and elevators. If stationary engineers’ wages were a larger part of the cost of building maintenance, they probably would not be able to enjoy princely wages (sometimes six figures) — or more would be spent to automate safety.

Make Way for the Threadocracy

Henderson’s chief example of the unimportance principle was not in the labor market, but in the clothing industries — in particular, a deceptively humble commodity, sewing thread. Historians of technology have taken thread for granted at their peril.

While thread hardly seemed to merit a footnote in treatises on textile making, it was essential to the integrity of finished garments. Paisley, Scotland (near Glasgow), was the center of one of Britain’s nascent luxury crafts, the weaving of shawls in silk and fine wool with designs imitating traditional floral patterns of India. (“Paisley goes with nothing,” the title of one recent men’s fashion guide sneered, but the characteristic pine motif was the height of ladies’ fashion around 1800 and has periodically experienced faddish revivals since.)

The weavers of Paisley were not the oppressed home workers of other crafts but a labor aristocracy of independent artisans who wove in the morning and spent afternoons promenading and gossiping in town. Not surprisingly, though, market power can be a fleeting phenomenon in a competitive economy. When power looms were designed to produce lower-price knockoffs of similar patterns, the original lost its cachet among the 1 percent, and the town looked to a new industrial basis that began at the height of the handloom era.

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Among the “unimportant” but essential parts of their looms were the heddles, the loops through which the warp threads ran. The best heddles were made of silk imported from continental Europe. When the Napoleonic wars disrupted the supply, one of the weaving suppliers, Patrick Clark, developed a cotton thread that proved so durable it supplanted silk even after the supply resumed. Clark also had the brilliant idea of selling the thread as a substitute for linen, not in the customary skeins but wound on now-familiar wooden spools.

Of course, the Clark family’s innovation does not account for the family’s rise to become a dominant supplier among cottonspinning firms in Paisley. They were known for high standards of quality. But they also were pioneers of branding and their anchor trademark was jealously (if not always successfully) guarded.

The Clark firm had global ambitions and was a pioneer in turning American trade protectionism to its advantage by establishing plants in the United States. Even today, Newark, N.J., boasts a Clark Thread Company Historic District, a registered National Historic Site now redeveloped as an industrial park.

Coats, another family firm, developed a following of its own. And soon giant mills appeared in the Paisley landscape, along with churches and other public buildings endowed by the reigning families of what became known as the threadocracy.

By mid-19th century it was the sewing machine that propelled the fortunes of the threadocracy, along with their relentless improvement of spinning technology and quality control. The rise of ready-made clothing manufacture gave sewing thread an enviable unimportant-but-essential status. It was a small part of the cost of a finished garment, but breakage of weak thread meant costly interruption of the production line. As was later said about IBM, nobody was ever fired for specifying Coats or Clark thread.

The threadocracy pioneered not only brand-name marketing but global management. Their star salesman was a German national named Otto Ernst Philippi, who embodied his nation’s prized gründlichkeit — thoroughness. A schoolmaster’s son, fluent in four languages, he won the family’s confidence in part through his impeccable English correspondence.

Clark had the brilliant idea of selling cotton thread as a substitute for linen, not in skeins but wound on nowfamiliar wooden spools.

More important, he proved a brilliant business strategist and architect not only of the firm’s market expansion but of its manufacturing strategy, focusing its identity on the production of premium six-cord thread, the highest common grade.

With the age of trusts and combinations — market concentration works even better than branding in fattening the bottom line — Philippi also guided the merger of the Coats and Clark empires with other British thread firms to create J&P Coats in 1890. By then the merged family firms controlled two-thirds of U.S. cotton thread production. By 1905, it was third in capitalization among all British corporations (after Imperial Tobacco and Watneys, the brewer) and larger than DuPont (dynamite, anyone?) in America.

A digression (which, as must be plain by now, I cannot resist): Patrick Clark’s descendant, Kenneth Clark, the art historian and Civilization television series star, grew up on an estate with a 14-hole golf course and a resident pro. His profligate father’s share of the proceeds of the Coats public offering was worth $650 million in today’s money. His parents may not have been the richest of the idle rich, Kenneth Clark wryly recalled in his autobiography, but there were few who were more idle.

The unimportant but essential industry of sewing thread created a disproportionate number of luminaries. Friedrich Engels was the scion of an old textile family in the town of Barmen, part of today’s Wuppertal, Germany. His father had combined with the inventor of a patented method for polishing thread (yes, that’s a thing), creating another internationally branded product. The younger Engels was able to lead a double life as respectable merchant and amateur revolutionary, ultimately turning pro with his friend Karl Marx.

The French counterparts of the Coats and Clark families were the Cartier-Bressons, whose spools still show up on auction sites, their colors too beautiful for actual sewing. There is no evidence that Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great photographer and scion, was interested in the family business. But it did give him, like Engels, a considerable cushion to pursue his passion. Meanwhile, the multinational Coats Group Ltd. remains the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial sewing threads, exceeding its Asian rivals in sales.

Unimportant but essential sewing thread has been more important than we imagine. The University of Pennsylvania economist Edwin Mansfield and his colleagues found that stronger sewing thread had contributed more to productivity and well-being than any other innovation, including information technology.

The Not-So-Humble Valve

What sewing thread is to garments, valves are to pressurized devices — small parts that hold larger ones together. Consider the humble tire valve. While automotive journalists periodically remind readers of the perils of underinflation, what is impressive is how little air is lost from a tire inflated at 30 pounds or more per square inch. The most common (and best) variety is the Schrader valve, still manufactured according to principles worked out in the 1890s by the German immigrant August Schrader and his son George.

A tire valve is a small part of the cost of the vehicle. Yet failure can be disastrous, so a high-quality product can command a premium price.

The Schraders had prospered as suppliers to the thriving maritime industries of New York and had worked with valves of diving apparatus and life preservers when the safety bicycle (the kind with the now-familiar diamond frame and equal-size pneumatic-tired wheels), and then the automobile, brought a demand for reliable fittings. Schrader’s genius was not only to perfect a durable valve but to standardize sizing, making it possible for millions of Schrader-compatible pumps – from slender ones mounted on bicycle frames to massive pressurized systems in repair shops – to connect with every Schrader-type valve on anything inflatable.

None of the early Schrader patents looks much like today’s Schrader valve, but the principle is unchanged. A tire valve is a small part of the cost of the vehicle. Yet failure can be disastrous, so a high-quality product can command a premium price. In proportion to their size and weight, Schrader valves were some of the most expensive manufactured objects in America. The Schrader company’s successor, Sensata Technologies, is now a leading producer of high-tech valves for tire pressure monitoring systems mandated in every new car.

Other valves, intended for industry, were massive. One of the most influential was created by an Austrian-born inventor named Hanns Hörbiger in the early 1890s. Just as Schrader learned from his father’s innovations in diving, Hörbiger applied lessons from his family trade of organ building and its management of compressed air.

A new generation of blast furnaces and other industrial equipment was operating at intense pressures that challenged existing valve designs, risking catastrophic explosions. Hörbiger’s solution resists verbal description. Even published patent drawings and photographs reveal little about how it works – but work it does.

Unlike the Schrader valve, Hörbiger’s became the anchor of a family dynasty and a multinational corporation like today’s Coats industrial sewing thread empire. According to its website, Hörbiger products are used in everything from reciprocating compressors to vehicle transmissions. They are a small part of the cost of the final product – but essential, and thus highly profitable.

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Yet another digression: Hörbiger’s interests were not limited to engineering. Even as he was inventing his valves, he developed an unorthodox cosmology that he called the Cosmic Ice Theory, according to which the universe formed from the transformation of ice into the moon and planets. He thus joined a throng of outspoken mystical scientific amateurs of the Central European antimodernist fringe — proof that technological wizardry and scientific insight can diverge.

While scientists rejected his ideas, he did attract a ragtag bunch of admirers equally eager to challenge scientific authority. Indeed, after Hörbiger’s death in 1931, these superfans found a new patron in Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS and a man who never met a fringe doctrine he did not like.

There was a brighter side to the family legacy. Paul, one of Hörbiger’s sons, became a celebrated stage actor who had a minor but memorable part in Carol Reed’s 1949 film masterpiece, The Third Man. The most recent representative of the theatrical dynasty is Mavie Hörbiger, Paul’s granddaughter, a familiar figure in German-language cinema. While the family members succeeded through their own talents — as did Engels and Kenneth Clark — a family fortune did not hurt.

Buckle Up

After the triumph of the valve in the annals of important unimportance came the age of the fastener, the ultimate little thing. Some successful fastener inventors have faded from memory. Who has heard of the Ukrainian- American William Dzus, who invented a self-locking fastener that could be installed rapidly yet could withstand the intense vibration and stresses of combat aircraft? But other fastener innovators were some of the most colorful 20th-century industrialists.

Across the street from the Ukrainian Center’s Gilded Age chateau donated by Dzus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses one of the finest collections of 18th-century French furniture masterpieces, given by Jack and Belle Linsky, the founders of the Swingline Corporation. Virtually no manufactured object costs less than a staple. Yet this humble device so enriched the Linskys that they were able to compete successfully with the Queen of England in auctions for decorative arts. You are certain to be able to see the Linskys’ treasure trove when the Met reopens because the Linskys included a clause in their deed of gift requiring transfer of the collection to another museum if a single piece was disturbed.

Jack Linsky was not like most founders of industrial companies; he had neither an engineering nor a manufacturing background. He was a stationery salesman who represented a German company that made staplers. The state of the art at the time was ungainly and expensive — with some, the staples were sold loose and often ended up on the floor.

Deposit Photos

Linsky found specialists to invent for them. Little is known about these tinkerers and chemists, but they made two brilliant innovations, both now taken for granted. One was the cohered strip, in which staples were connected with just the right amount of glue to be handled easily, yet could separate cleanly when struck. A complementary innovation, reflected in Swingline’s name, was a springloaded cover that opened to allow the strip to be dropped in, and then applied pressure to the back of the strip once closed. Incidentally, the technology for making those cohered strips was long a closely guarded trade secret.

These Depression-era inventions came into their own in the postwar era, and especially in the 1960s thanks to a far more intricate innovation, the Xerox photocopier. A deluge of office paper ensued, along with (before the advent of copiers with built-in collators and stapling mechanisms) more stacks of paper needing to be stapled. What began as one cumbersome machine typically used by everybody in an office became an inexpensive fixture of each employee’s desk. The more staplers were sold, the more staples were needed.

While Germans missed out on the global stapler market, they more than compensated in structural fasteners. Consider an object familiar to nearly all Europeans, a plastic expanding screw anchor with notched sides designed to anchor wallboard and other building elements. Like William Dzus’s device, it was ingeniously designed to set securely without adhesives or complex manipulation. There is relatively little use for it in the United States, where frame houses (as opposed to masonry construction) are the norm. But it has become essential in European construction — a tiny but indispensable component.

Unlike the other important-unimportant inventors and entrepreneurs, Artur Fischer, the originator of the expanding screw anchor (aka the Dübel), was an all-around inventive genius. A locksmith and master mechanic in the artisanal tradition of Southwest Germany and Switzerland, he made his reputation and first fortune after World War II with the synchronized photo flash. Before then, photographers either had to use dangerous powder or independently activated bulbs.

Fischer claimed more patents than Thomas Edison, but many of them were for variations on the design of the Dübel. Of course, they gave some protection against would-be competitors as the original patents expired, but Fischer was also seeking bragging rights as a champion of German industry. In that spirit he devised a modeling kit, Fischer Technik, used as a teaching tool not only by students and hobbyists but by professional engineers to this day. At the time of his death (2016 at age 96), the company he founded, the Fischer Group, had 4,000 employees and sold 14,000 products worldwide.

One likely growth field for important unimportance may be microdevices that combine proprietary hardware manufacturing techniques with software controlling them.
The Future of Unimportance

I can offer no great insights into the next, important unimportant innovation. But that won’t stop me from guessing.

One likely growth field for important unimportance may be microdevices that combine proprietary hardware manufacturing techniques with software controlling them. Switzerland is an ideal location, with superb science education (including Einstein’s alma mater, the Swiss Federal Technical Institute) and high labor costs that encourage the development of niche manufacturing. My favorite little-known champion is Maxon Motor, with about 3,000 employees worldwide.

It manufactures virtually no consumer goods but supplies the miniature drives (with their own gears and software) that make so much possible in everything from tattoo machines to humanoid robots. There are tiny motors everywhere around us — for example, in digital photography they control autofocus, zoom and picture stabilization. The motors are small but critical parts of the total cost of these systems, so (as with Coats and Clark thread) it is risky to purchase imitations that cost less. Giant corporations could perhaps work around the patents, but the savings would not be worth it as they might be without components that largely determine the cost of the final product.

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In these stories, David doesn’t defeat Goliath with a slingshot. For a hefty but bearable fee, he supplies a secret miracle ingredient for the alloy used to forge the giant’s sword.

main topic: Innovation