In my post We never invent anything new, yet progress is made!, I argued that innovation is incremental and social. I derived two recommendations for innovators: be good at communicating your ideas and be networked. Indeed, while you cannot create radically new ideas, you may contribute significantly to the adoption of an important insight.
Sometimes (rarely) a significant breakthrough is achieved by someone who really invent something. Some examples :
- Copernic and geocentrism give up,
- Darwin and evolution theory,
Sure that these breakthroughs have been possible by previous incremental progress. Citing Thomas Khun, science progress is discontinuous by nature. It is more rupture than accumulation.
I disagree with the Thomas Khun quote. Let me take the two examples Frédéric submitted.
Copernic did not invent heliocentrism. From wikipedia, we learn that The Greek Aristarchus of Samos, in the 3rd century BC, was the first known person to speculate that the Earth revolves around a stationary sun. Even his mathematical models are not novel. Still from wikipedia, we learn that two centuries before Copernic wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Ibn Al-Shatir, a Damascene astronomer, wrote a lunar theory which is mathematically identical with that of Copernicus.
Darwin did not invent evolution. Lamark’s Inheritance of acquired characters theory published in 1809 clearly describe evolution as we know it, he just misunderstood the mechanism by which evolution occurs. Darwin did not even invent single-handedly evolution by natural selection, since he co-discovered it with Wallace. It is quite possible that others had the same ideas independently as well (see Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology).
In his excellent blog post Convergent Evolution and Multiple Discovery, Peter Turney wrote:
(…) a close study of the history of any particular technology invariably shows a series of small, incremental developments. The apparent jumps are an illusion, caused by the way technology is adopted.
To express it differently, apparent jumps forward are social effects. If you ever become part of history as an innovator, it will not be because of your superior ideas, but because you were at the center of a social phenomenon.
Source: Almost all of the good content of this post must be credited to Peter Turney.