Most encyclopedias credit Italian professor Alessandro Volta with inventing the electric battery. That’s true, but it almost entirely misses the point.
What Volta really invented was the first source of continuous current. Up until then, natural philosophers (now called “scientists”) could only generate and store static charges. Static electricity is good for producing sparks and shocking people and animals, but that’s about it. Using Volta’s continuous current apparatus, investigators across Europe found they could create light and heat, drive chemical reactions, and perform a wider range of experiments. That, in turn, led to the telegraph, telephone, and wireless.
Volta laid the foundation for electronics; demand for AA batteries came much later.
There are two other interesting facets to Volta’s story. Volta did not set out to invent a device producing continuous current. He was merely trying to win a debate with the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani. Galvani made a frog’s leg muscle contract just by touching the attached nerve with his scalpel; he theorized that touching the nerve disturbed the creature’s “animal electricity.” Volta knew that a tiny amount of electricity can trigger muscle contractions. He also knew that tiny amounts of electricity can be generated just by bringing certain materials (such as dissimilar metals and moist tissue) into contact with each other.
To wit, the electric battery issued from a clash of ideas.
The electric battery was actually Volta’s second invention exploiting the production of electricity through simple contact. His first was the celebrated electrophorus. Prior to the electrophorus, the only way to generate electric charges was to rub certain materials together. Rubbed once, the electrophorus could produce electric charges multiple times. Like many great scientists and inventors, Volta found new ways to milk a single good idea. Had he lived to see Faraday’s dynamo--which converted motion into electricity—he might have dismissed it as a throwback to persistent rubbing.
Next time: How a Blacksmith’s Son Discovered Force Fields
The current debate about how to reform the U.S. health care system revolves around two issues: access and affordability. We are reminded almost daily that approximately 46 million Americans are uninsured. And we are warned that at the rate costs are rising health care will consume one-third of our GDP within a few decades.
Missing from the debate is how to ensure the flow of innovation that made the U.S. health care system the envy of the world. Are we so obsessed with financial security that we are willing to risk future medical advances?
I’m sure some will dismiss what I just said as a mixture of false pride and alarmism. But I’ve done my homework. (My book on the history and future of medical technology will be published later this year.) Many of the medical miracles that we now consider a birthright could not have been brought to market under today’s regulatory regime. Read on, and I’ll explain why the proposed reforms could bring medical technology innovation to a screeching halt.
First, we need to get a key fact straight. No one in the U.S. is being denied life-saving treatment. There is not a single emergency room in the U.S. that would turn away someone in urgent need of medical care just because they lack health insurance or are unable to pay. The pundits who keep harping on the 46 million uninsured Americans are the alarmists. Many of the uninsured are young and healthy. Some are between jobs. Others choose to pay for their own health care. Simple math says that there must be over 250 million Americans who do have some form of health insurance—so 46 million uninsured is hardly a national calamity.
That’s not to say everything is hunky-dory. Health care costs in the U.S. have soared. But it’s not because advanced technology has driven costs through the roof. It’s because of the bureaucracy associated with filing and tracking claims. It’s because the third-party payer system prevents prices from guiding supply and demand. It’s because the FDA has made bringing new drugs to market horribly expensive. And it’s because of huge malpractice awards.
So how would proposed health care reform endanger innovation?
A major goal of health care reform is to rein in costs. Unfortunately, new technology is always more expensive than mature technology. It takes time to recoup the cost of developing new technology. It takes time to reduce the cost of manufacturing it. And it takes time and money to build the market; volume production is the ultimate source of low prices. In a nutshell, reforms that curb costs will discourage the introduction of new technologies because new technologies are inherently more expensive.
The Obama administration believes that we can drive down the cost of health care by mandating the use of electronic medical records (EMRs). Going to a paperless system will squeeze out some costs and EMRs offer other benefits. However, forced adoption is often more expensive and time consuming than natural adoption. EMRs could divert resources from other worthy and perhaps more timely technologies. Plus, the government has been pushing EMRs for 15 years without success, and industry giants such as Microsoft and Google now think that Internet-based personal health records (PHRs) are a better bet. Who would want government-mandated EMRs when they can have patient-controlled PHRs?
Despite the overwhelming historical evidence, we no longer believe in the system that has brought prosperity to the greatest number. We continue to harbor the illusion that a centralized, planned system is more efficient and fair. But it’s the self-organized system that is more conducive to innovation.
Health care reform does not have to be the end of medical technology innovation. In order to get what they want, the proponents of a national health system may agree to a compromise that permits an alternative private health care system for those who are willing and able to pay extra. The private system could become a test bed for new technologies. Heck, a dual health care system could end up being more competitive than what we have today.
But a dual system is not a sure bet. It may take several years of rationing and bureaucratic indifference to spur another round of reforms. And that is not a pleasant prospect.