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How Play Is At The Heart of Many World-Changing Inventions

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Programmable machines called automata became the play things of the French elite in the 1700s, keeping the idea of programmable machines alive. (TED-ED)

The phrase "necessity is the mother of all invention," is often used to describe how creative humans can be when they are trying to survive or protect something they love. But humanity also has a long history of coming up with new ideas and fantastical inventions when the creator has space to explore and discover.

"There's a long list of world-changing inventions that come out of play," says writer Steven Johnson in this TED-Ed video. He uses the modern computer as an example. While many people point to the military's use of early computers to crack code, Johnson takes the origin story much further back to the first programmable music machines, which used pins on a rotating cylinder to play a tune. Johnson contends programmable machines were kept alive for 700 years by people's delight in music, not for any practical necessity.

Still, the existence of programmable music machines led to other inventions that have had huge effects on the development of civilization. Johnson contends that the delight and amusement that come from play can have profound effects, and that space should be made in schools and businesses to encourage playful exploring if humans want to make progress.

"You'll find the future wherever people are having the most fun," Johnson says.


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