William A. Shurcliff’s Advice on Corporate vs Independent Inventions

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And the second reason that Bill Shurcliff is an interesting guy is summed up in a "top secret" paper which he recently sent to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS offices.

William A. Shurcliff is quite an interesting fellow for at least a couple of reasons.

For one, he’s the guy who puts together a constantly updated and revised (Bill is now up to something like Edition No. 9 or 10) guide entitled, Solar Heated Buildings: A Brief Survey. This overview of the field now lists approximately 120 sun-warmed and cooled structures currently being constructed or already in operation here in North America. The book lists the address, type of heating and/or air conditioning system, and percent of total warming and cooling energy provided by the sun for each building and — for less than $10.00 — is one of the absolutely most valuable references a solar freak can have.

And the second reason that Bill Shurcliff is an interesting guy is summed up in a “top secret” paper which he recently sent to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS offices. That paper, which for the first time reveals exactly how Parkinson’s Principle of Pyramiding Pride applies to the development of solar heating systems, is reprinted below in its entirety. At last the truth can be revealed!

Corporate vs Independent Inventions and Parkinson’s Principle of Pyramiding Pride

Every lone-wolf inventor — but no big-corporation executive — knows that when the U.S. Government hands over $500,000 to a big corporation to develop a reliable and cheap solar heating system, the corporation struggles valiantly and produces a system that is hopelessly complicated and expensive.

Contrariwise, if a lone-wolf inventor, using his own savings, starts to design and build a solar heating system for his own house, he has a good chance of ending up with a system that does the job and costs little.

Bewildered by this paradox, I consulted economists, engineers, and corporation heads. But to no avail.

Finally, I consulted the famous Parkinson — the man who discovered that, nine times out of ten, when you enter a crowded post office and carefully choose the shortest line to wait in, any other choice would have been preferable.

Parkinson listened to my question, gazed at the ceiling for a minute or two, and said:

The explanation is simple enough. When you pay a corporation $500,000 to invent a solar heating system, the corporation officials have no choice at all: there is no way that they can escape making a complicated, much-too-expensive system. They are 100% trapped by the Principle of Pyramiding Pride.

They order all of their department heads to cooperate fully. Each department head enlists the aid of his best engineers. Each engineer tries to design the very best equipment.

The public relations director calls a press conference and explains that the company is about to score the long-needed breakthrough in solar heating, is about to Lead the Way out of the energy crisis.

Hearing this, the engineers redouble their efforts to devise the very best equipment, so that everyone will agree that the Government has gotten its money’s worth . . . National Science Foundation officials will be wreathed in smiles, the technical journals will publish salvos of praise, and the company stockholders will cherish feelings of real reverence for their company.

The project is completed on schedule. The result is a technological masterpiece! A joy to behold! It is praised by everyone: Government officials, company heads, press, and public. (The user soon finds the equipment to be too complicated and costly to maintain, and — quietly, shamefully — he abandons it.)

I was shocked. “This can’t be true”, I pleaded, “Surely the corporation heads are intelligent. They know the meanings of the words reliable and cheap?”

“But they have no choice!”, Parkinson replied. “Surely you remember the Central Africa writing-machine competition?”

I did not, and he explained:

Fifteen years ago the United Nations awarded identical contracts to two corporations: Trans-World-Products, and the Sam Botts Co. Each was given $ 1,000, 000 and told to design a writing machine that would be truly suited to African countries: the device was to be capable of writing in small letters or large, in English, French, German, or Swahili. It, was to withstand tropical dampness and floods.

The Trans-World-Products engineers went to work with a will. They used up all the money and time allowed. They produced a 200-lb. stainless-steel machine, housed in a fiberglass container which included a rechargeable battery, a 5-year desiccant cartridge, flotation gear, and a 100-page maintenance manual written in twelve languages. Although the first model cost over $100,000 to build, later units could be mass-produced, it was claimed, for only $1,500. The device was a marvel to behold, and the world was lavish with its praise. The president of the company was given a 15% salary increase, the department heads were given bigger office& Even the stockholders in the company felt ennobled by being involved in such a successful and altruistic project. TWP’s final report (in four volumes, and weighing 8 lbs.) is available in all major libraries.

The Sam Botts Co. took no visible action for many months. Old Man Botts said nothing to his department heads. He asked no one for help. He built nothing. Day after day he sat in his small office staring off into space. Finally, he mailed off a small package (a manila envelope, which required 20 cents postage) to the sponsoring agency. The envelope contained an ordinary Faber Co. wooden pencil, a check for $990,000, and a brief note which read: “This machinepencilmeets the requirements: it writes in any language, is unaffected by damp climates, and, when caught in a flood, floats. Am returning the money we didn’t need. Yours truly, S. Botts.

The sponsoring agency was furious with Botts. The press ridiculed him. The stockholders felt crushed they cut his salary and eventually eased him out of the company entirely.

Today, there are 3,237,000,000 wooden pencils in use in Africa. No second TWP machine was ever built.

Before I could catch my breath, Parkinson said: “Sorry. Must leave. Am to attend the dedication of the new NSF-funded solar heating system for the local high school. They say it’s a technological masterpiece!”