In my video “SpaceX, Neil deGrasse Tyson, & Private vs. Government Technological Breakthroughs”, I provided a brief discussion of notable counterexamples to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s assertions that private enterprise does not have the resources or exploratory orientation to open up radically new frontiers. Tyson argues that only well-funded government efforts can open up space or could have opened up the New World. History, however, offers many examples of precisely what Tyson denies to be possible: private enterprise breaking new ground and making the exploration of a frontier possible. Indeed, in many of these cases, governments only entered the arena later, once private inventors or entrepreneurs have already established an industry in which governments could get involved. Here, I offer a somewhat more thorough list of such examples of groundbreaking and well-known private initiatives, as well as links to further information about each. I may also update this list as additional examples occur to me.
The Industrial Revolution: The Industrial Revolution – the explosion of technologies for mass production during the late 18th and early 19th centuries – itself arose out of private initiative. The extensive Wikipedia entry on the Industrial Revolution shows that virtually every one of the major inventions that made it possible was created by a private individual and put into commercial use by private entrepreneurs. This paradigm shift, more than any other, rescued the majority of humankind from the brink of subsistence and set the stage for the high living standards we enjoy today.
Automobile: The automobile owes its existence to ingenious tinkerers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The first self-propelled vehicle was invented circa 1769 by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. Cugnot did work on experiments for the French military and did receive a pension from King Louis XV for his inventions. However, subsequent developments that made possible the automobile occurred solely due to private initiative. The first internal combustion engines were independently developed circa 1807 by the private inventors Nicéphore Niépce and François Isaac de Rivaz. For the remainder of the 19th century, innovations in automobile technology were carried forward by a succession of tinkerers. The ubiquity and mass availability of the automobile owe their existence to the mass-production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford in the early 20th century.
Great Northern Railway: While some railroads, such as the notorious repeatedly bankrupt Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, received government subsidies, many thriving railroads were fully funded and operated privately. James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway – which played a pivotal role in the development of the Pacific Northwest – is an excellent example.
Electrification: The infusion of cheap, ubiquitous artificial light into human societies during the late 19th centuries owes its existence largely to the work of two private inventors and entrepreneurs: Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
Computing: The first computers, too, were the products of private tinkering. A precursor, the Jacquard Loom, was developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. The concept for the first fully functional computer was developed by Charles Babbage in 1837 – though Babbage did not have the funds to complete his prototype. The Wikipedia entry on the history of computing shows that private individuals contributed overwhelmingly to the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to construct the first fully functioning general-purpose computers in the mid-20th century. To be sure, some of the development took place in government-funded universities or was done for the benefit of the United States military. However, it is undeniable that we have private entrepreneurs and companies to thank for the introduction of computers and software to the general public beginning in the 1970s.
Civilian Internet: While the Internet began as a US military project (ARPANET) in the 1960s, it was not until it was opened to the private market that its effects on the world became truly groundbreaking. An excellent discussion of this development can be found in Peter Klein’s essay, “Government Did Invent the Internet, But the Market Made It Glorious”.
Human Genome Project: While the United States government’s Human Genome Project began first in 1990, it was overtaken by the privately funded genome-sequencing project of J. Craig Venter and his company Celera. Celera started its work on sequencing the human genome in 1998 and completed it in 2001 at approximately a tenth of the cost of the federally funded project. The two projects published their results jointly, but the private project was far speedier and more cost-efficient.
Private Deep-Space Asteroid-Hunting Telescope: This initiative is in the works, but Leonard David of SPACE.com writes that Project Sentinel is expected to be launched in 2016 using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. This is an unprecedented private undertaking by the B612 Foundation, described by Mr. David as “a nonprofit group of scientists and explorers that has long advocated the exploration of asteroids and better space rock monitoring.” Project Sentinel aims to vastly improve our knowledge of potentially devastating near-Earth asteroids and to map 90% of them within 5.5 years of operation. The awareness conferred by this project might just save humanity itself.
With this illustrious history, private enterprise may yet bring us even greater achievements – from the colonization of Mars to indefinite human life extension. In my estimation, the probability of such an outcome far exceeds that of a national government undertaking such ambitious advancements of our civilization.