Everything that’s moved our world ahead, and some events that have moved civilization backwards, began with an idea.
One night, sitting beside a campfire on a grassy savannah, a caveman had an idea to make bringing home the sabre-tooth-tiger-bacon easier. Refining his idea several times, he experimented with chipped rocks, laced one to a straight stick, and practiced throwing his new weapon until his arm became a throwing machine. Then he tossed his club in the woodpile and went to spear some dinner for the lady of the cave.
When he arrived home that night, towing a tawny tiger by its ludicrously large left toe, everyone wanted to know how he’d conquered the beast without losing an arm or a leg. Or his head. And he came up with his second brilliant idea. He made up a story about how he invented that first spear. Then he was smart enough to serialize the rest of his story, making a huge profit in giant rodent skins when he released several chapters about his first spear-to-tooth battle with the tiger over the course of the year. After that he had new ideas each year and soon retired comfortably in the largest cave while his most recent weapons and tools practically sold themselves. He only had to make one or two appearances at the community campfire each month, telling his story in person, to keep the wombat haunches rolling in.
A very long time after that event, a court storyteller came down with laryngitis when the castle’s youngest princess insisted he tell the Princess and the Handsome Suitor story from dawn to dusk and then to the next dawn.
“Again,” she squealed every time he reached the Happily Ever After zone. It only took a glare from the king and queen to motivate him to keep the royal offspring entertained so the couple could continue to relax on their thrones while chilling to the latest tunes of the celebrity travelling troubadour.
Why, the storyteller wondered, didn’t someone come up with an idea that would allow the princess to enjoy the story by herself? He looked around for help or even inspiration, but everyone studiously ignored his predicament. He sighed as he realized he only got the gig because no one else would take it. Well, that left having a brilliant idea in his court, so to speak.
But his brain was foggy from lack of sleep—the princess tended to stay up ‘til all hours of the night, you see, endlessly demanding he recount her favorite story. As a result, he failed to capture the idea for an invention that would record that wretched story forever as it went floating through his brain one night at zero-dark-thirty. (Storytellers used to employ military terms for time, mainly because staying alive when subject to the whim of kings, queens, and bratty princesses made their lives feel like endless battles.)
The storyteller didn’t live to see the invention of the printing machine. But when the king beheaded him after the princess threw a screaming, heel-kicking, door-slamming tantrum in the middle of the night because the storyteller tried to change the ending, his sorry successor was inspired to scribe the story onto a parchment. The newly-appointed storyteller presented the princess with the record of her favorite story in a joyous celebration attended by the entire court, and hightailed it to the next kingdom before she realized she didn’t know how to read.
When someone finally got around to an idea for a printing press, storytellers everywhere gave a sigh of relief and retired to easier lives as peasant farmers in a drought-stricken country far from the reach of royalty. Or so, the story goes.
Time marched on until one day there were whole libraries full of stories. What a blessed idea! There was no need for storytellers to blow out their vocal chords with repeated recitations of the one or two stories they’d memorized.
No, storytellers were now “writers,” and they had ideas all the time. Every minute of the day. In fact, there were ideas everywhere they looked. New stories appeared every day. Libraries grew larger and sprang up everywhere.
Kings and queens took out library cards for their royal children as soon as the bells stopped pealing in celebration of each new birth. That way they were sure of a good night’s sleep and they would never have to listen to that irritating story about the Princess and the Handsome Suitor again.
Until the spoiled princess learned to read aloud. But that’s another story.
And it all began with an idea.