General Non-Fiction

Innovation & Imitation For Nations: The Technological Gap Shock and Nations' Urge to Imitate and Copycat

By: Mohammed Ahmad S. Al-Shamsi
Published by: Blurb, Inc.
Publication Date: March 2022
Reviewed By: Barbara Bamberger Scott

A noted authority in the field of invention and innovation on an international scale, Professor Al-Shamsi has here created a lively look at the history, both recent and ancient, of innovation – the creation of things new, never-before known or utilized – and imitation – taking the new and claiming it for oneself and one’s nation.

Importantly, Al-Shamsi points out that both innovator and copier benefit in the process of imitation. Consumers recognize the value of the real, original product, while also understanding that a cheaper version benefits them both in price and in the gradual improvements that result as the imitated product is widely consumed. And as the copycatted item becomes popular, the “real thing” gains value in its rarity and scarcity. Among the many examples given are Chinese porcelain and silk, which became highly desired acquisitions for wealthy Europeans in the early days of trade routing between the two regions. The Emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE) sent two priests to China to steal the precious worms that produced the latter product, which would become a hallmark garment for aristocracy, along with a purple dye found in Phoenicia and copied by Roman conquerors. Paper, an invention of the Egyptians, was carried to Europe by Arab traders and was quickly adapted and its manufacture improved upon.

Patenting has developed in a complex thread through several centuries, as Al-Shamsi details. In modern times, there have been numerous copycatting incidences, underpinned by patents, initially granted by kings as a kind of profit-making scheme that included such surprising grants as the colonization of America. Early on, patents were a form of monopoly and involved no invention or innovation by the patent holder. Moving to the twentieth century and beyond, the author gives examples not only of Japan and China’s notable imitative industries, but also of America’s less known participation in the patenting practice. Thomas Edison, for example, did not invent the first electric light, nor did American Henry Ford invent cars that run on fossil fuels, nor did the Wright brothers create the first flying machine. And during the Cold War, the US was forced to imitate the Soviets in developing spacecraft.

Such intriguing cases enliven Al-Shamsi’s book, which combines scholarly reference with moments of appropriately quiet, ironic humor. Students of history, economics, and international relations would do well to explore the author’s rational and well researched viewpoint.

Quill says: Read Professor Al-Shamsi’s offerings for a broad, intelligent, fascinating elucidation of global history, economics, and, at heart, the human tendencies that unite us all.

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