Jenner would go down in history as the person who invented and administered a medical cure for one of the deadliest viruses in world history.
Then he invented something else: a new word, from the Latin for “cow,” that would be carried down through the centuries alongside his scientific breakthrough.
He called his wondrous invention a vaccine.
Let’s pause the story here.
Jenner’s eureka moment is world-famous: cherished by scientists, rhapsodized by historians, and even captured in oil paintings that hang in European museums.
For many, progress is essentially a timeline of the breakthroughs made by extraordinary individuals like Jenner.
Our mythology of science and technology treats the moment of discovery or invention as a sacred scene.
In school, students memorize the dates of major inventions, along with the names of the people who made them—Edison, light bulb, 1879; Wright brothers, airplane, 1903.
The great discoverers—Franklin, Bell, Curie, Tesla—get best-selling biographies, and millions of people know their names.
This is the eureka theory of history.
And for years, it is the story I’ve read and told.
Inventors and their creations are the stars of my favorite books about scientific history, including The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin, and They Made America, by Harold Evans.
I’ve written long features for this magazine holding up invention as the great lost art of American technology and the fulcrum of human progress.
But in the past few years, I’ve come to think that this approach to history is wrong.
Inventions do matter greatly to progress, of course.
But too often, when we isolate these famous eureka moments, we leave out the most important chapters of the story—the ones that follow the initial lightning bolt of discovery.
Consider the actual scale of Edward Jenner’s accomplishment the day he pricked James Phipps in 1796.
Exactly one person had been vaccinated in a world of roughly 1 billion people, leaving 99.9999999 percent of the human population unaffected.
When a good idea is born, or when the first prototype of an invention is created, we should celebrate its potential to change the world.
But progress is as much about implementation as it is about invention.
The way individuals and institutions take an idea from one to 1 billion is the story of how the world really changes.