Necessity is a “Mother”” Musings on the Nature of Invention

When I read the OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon I wonder a lot about scientific discoveries.  Even the characters wonder about it.  Brianna, who makes matches and invents a metal spade-shaped shovel wonders whether all inventions are the property of time travelers bringing them to the past and, in a kind of continuous loop, experiencing their modern counterparts in the future.  She’s stumped by this chicken and egg line of thought.

How would Claire get away with her advanced surgical technique and why wouldn’t these techniques immediately migrate to the wider medical community?
I suspect there are at least four factors involved:
1. Few doctors had much in the way of real credentials or training.   Therefore admitting they do not know everything would cause a lack of confidence in their abilities.

2. Slow dissemination of information.  Nothing traveled faster than a horse or a ship until the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, I like to think of ocean going vessels as the internet of the 18th century.

3. A lack of education and the belief in religious principles versus scientific ideas.

4. Difficulties in manufacture or distillation. There really were not many modern factories where a large amount of sulfuric acid could be distilled into ether. And doing so could be extremely dangerous.

It is not far-fetched for Gabaldon writing about Claire’s growing her on penicillin.  Things often happen, exist or be in use before they are widespread knowledge and accepted. Even though we don’t think of antibiotics until the 20th century, moulds had been used since the ancients to treat infection ( and in the 17th century John Parkington wrote about using moulds in medical treatments in a book on pharmacology.


Invention are often  knocked around as anecdotal, or as single occurences or are used by one person. After a while, they may become known but unaccepted methods before comings into favor with scientific acceptance and public knowledge and understanding.  Inventions often are not the result of the original idea of something but rather the ability to define it as to action, efficacy and manufacture.

Claire distills her own either in A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES and AN ECHO IN THE BONE.  In WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEARTS BLOOD she learns it can be purchased ready made.

Research on modern techniques to reduce surgical pain began when an English scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) discovered that inhalation of nitrous oxide might relieve pain.

V0018140 The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Oil painting
The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Oil painting

The first recorded surgical events using either took place in the early 1840s:
(According to a post on

At the time of William Morton’s ether demonstration (1846), people had known about ether for more than 300 years. But for most of those 300 years no one had thought to use it as an anesthetic. Instead, people used it to get high.

Another doctor, Crawford Long discovered ether after observing it’s use as a party intoxicant in Philiadelphia and in 1942 performed his first surgery on a patient.  He didn’t write it up because he wanted to be sure of his findings.  But when Morgan’s use hot the papers Crawford put pen to paper.

So, it’s hard to imagine that others hadn’t noticed people becoming unconscious when ether was present.  But, it was highly volatile and dangerous to make, and certainly would have been dangerous to make in large quantities and no one understood it yet. Gabaldon writes Claire finding extreme reluctance to its use among the people on the ridge who are strict Protestants. And, as far as carrying it around to battles in war time as a medicament, it’s volatility would have possibly have made it  an ordnance rather than a medical item.

But, even when science has discovered something and it is accepted , it didn’t always enter the mainstream knowledge of not only the masses but even the field in which it is discovered.  In the late 1640, Leeuwenhoek  identified single celled organisms. The Royal Society experimented to confirm his findings and they were accepted by 1680.  But, even though his findings were confirmed it was not until the 1800s that medicine put together bacteria and infection.  And even in the 1770s Jamie is astonished to learn about wee beasties and  what sperm is and he is a fairly well-educated man. On the other hand John Grey asks Claire if she’s familiar with

The idea that doctors were actually causing the spread of disease as they went from one infected patient to another was brought forward  in the 1840s by the Hungarian physician, Doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss who proposed that doctors washing their hands between patients would reduce the incidence of disease in maternity clinics. He had noticed that home births resulted in fewer incidences of puerperal  fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings.

The protocol of hand washing was put forward by Semmelweiss in the 1840s but it would take another twenty years for it to become protocol.

As far as some of Brianna’s inventing goes, matches had been invented in China in the 5th century but weren’t exactly handy to anywhere else.  Brianna is accustomed to matches and, as would I, finds making a fire with flint time consuming. So, with a degree in engineering she sets out to create matches.  Again limited production using volatile materials doesn’t create a commercial product.  It wasn’t until the 1820s that friction matches are commercially available in the real world although there are enfgravings fro before that of a woman selling matches.

A early commercial fire starter is not really a match as we know it.
A early commercial fire starter is not really a match as we know it.


She spends a lot of time trying to figure out piping water to the house.  Italians had water in the castle in Urbino so it wasn’t crazy to want water.  I don’t think it ever gets done though.

In A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, Brianna invents a better shovel that her father, Jamie thinks is amazing.  “The normal spade was made of wood and looked like nothing so much as a shingle attached to a pole.”(page 364 A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES)   It’s hard to imagine digging anything with a wooden shovel. And I have to think it would be pretty obvious, but probably costly to create a metal shovel in the colonies, but metal shovels did actually exist at the time.

Three_farm_labourers_waiting_to_be_hired_for_work.At left:

Samson Towgood Roch (1757-1847) National Museum of Ireland

Three farm labourers waiting to be hired for work. Workers carry one-sided facks (feac is Irish for ‘spade’) which was common in the south-east of Ireland.