Roughly 43,000 years ago,
a young cave bear
died in the rolling hills
on the northwest border
of modern day Slovenia.
A thousand years later,
a mammoth died in southern Germany.
A few centuries after that,
a griffon vulture also died
in the same vicinity.
And we know almost nothing
about how these animals met their deaths,
but these different creatures
dispersed across both time and space
did share one remarkable fate.
After their deaths,
a bone from each of their skeletons
was crafted by human hands
into a flute.
Think about that for a second.
Imagine you're a caveman,
40,000 years ago.
You've mastered fire.
You've built simple tools for hunting.
You've learned how to craft
garments from animal skins
to keep yourself warm in the winter.
What would you choose to invent next?
It seems preposterous
that you would invent the flute,
a tool that created
useless vibrations in air molecules.
But that is exactly
what our ancestors did.
Now this turns out
to be surprisingly common
in the history of innovation.
Sometimes people invent things
because they want to stay alive
or feed their children
or conquer the village next door.
But just as often,
new ideas come into the world
simply because they're fun.
And here's the really strange thing:
many of those playful
but seemingly frivolous inventions
ended up sparking
in science, in politics and society.
Take what may be the most
important invention of modern times:
Now, the standard story is that computers
descend from military technology,
since many of the early computers
were designed specifically
to crack wartime codes
or calculate rocket trajectories.
But in fact, the origins
of the modern computer
are much more playful,
than you might imagine.
The idea behind the flute,
of just pushing air through tubes
to make a sound,
was eventually modified
to create the first organ
more than 2,000 years ago.
Someone came up with the brilliant idea
of triggering sounds
by pressing small levers with our fingers,
inventing the first musical keyboard.
Now, keyboards evolved
from organs to clavichords to harpsichords
to the piano,
until the middle of the 19th century,
when a bunch of inventors
finally hit on the idea
of using a keyboard
to trigger not sounds but letters.
In fact, the very first typewriter
was originally called
"the writing harpsichord."
Flutes and music led
to even more powerful breakthroughs.
About a thousand years ago,
at the height of the Islamic Renaissance,
three brothers in Baghdad
designed a device
that was an automated organ.
They called it "the instrument
that plays itself."
Now, the instrument
was basically a giant music box.
The organ could be trained to play
various songs by using instructions
encoded by placing pins
on a rotating cylinder.
And if you wanted the machine
to play a different song,
you just swapped a new cylinder in
with a different code on it.
This instrument was the first of its kind.
It was programmable.
this was a massive leap forward.
The whole idea of hardware and software
becomes thinkable for the first time
with this invention.
And that incredibly powerful concept
didn't come to us as an instrument
of war or of conquest,
or necessity at all.
It came from the strange delight
of watching a machine play music.
In fact, the idea of programmable machines
was exclusively kept alive by music
for about 700 years.
In the 1700s, music-making machines
became the playthings
of the Parisian elite.
Showmen used the same coded cylinders
to control the physical movements
of what were called automata,
an early kind of robot.
One of the most famous of those robots
was, you guessed it,
an automated flute player
designed by a brilliant French inventor
named Jacques de Vaucanson.
And as de Vaucanson
was designing his robot musician,
he had another idea.
If you could program a machine
to make pleasing sounds,
why not program it to weave
delightful patterns of color out of cloth?
Instead of using the pins of the cylinder
to represent musical notes,
they would represent
threads with different colors.
If you wanted a new pattern
for your fabric,
you just programmed a new cylinder.
This was the first programmable loom.
Now, the cylinders were too expensive
and time-consuming to make,
but a half century later,
another French inventor named Jacquard
hit upon the brilliant idea
of using paper-punched cards
instead of metal cylinders.
Paper turned out to be
much cheaper and more flexible
as a way of programming the device.
That punch card system inspired
Victorian inventor Charles Babbage
to create his analytical engine,
the first true programmable computer
And punch cards were used
by computer programmers
as late as the 1970s.
So ask yourself this question:
what really made
the modern computer possible?
Yes, the military involvement
is an important part of the story,
but inventing a computer
also required other building blocks:
toy robot flute players,
colorful patterns woven into fabric,
and that's just a small part of the story.
There's a long list of world-changing
ideas and technologies
that came out of play:
public museums, rubber,
probability theory, the insurance business
and many more.
Necessity isn't always
the mother of invention.
The playful state of mind
is fundamentally exploratory,
seeking out new possibilities
in the world around us.
And that seeking
is why so many experiences
that started with simple
delight and amusement
eventually led us
to profound breakthroughs.
Now, I think this has implications
for how we teach kids in school
and how we encourage innovation
in our workspaces,
but thinking about play
and delight this way
also helps us detect what's coming next.
Think about it: if you were
sitting there in 1750
trying to figure out
the big changes coming to society
in the 19th, the 20th centuries,
automated machines, computers,
a programmable flute
entertaining the Parisian elite
would have been as powerful a clue
as anything else at the time.
It seemed like an amusement at best,
not useful in any serious way,
but it turned out to be
the beginning of a tech revolution
that would change the world.
You'll find the future
wherever people are having