One fairly obvious, little-discussed variety of low-hanging technological fruit are those ideas and devices that are already known – to but a few. Secrets.
Sometimes important secrets are deliberately kept for a long time. Consider the Chamberlen family.
Peter Chamberlen the elder [1560-1631] was the son of a Huguenot surgeon who had left France in 1576. He invented obstetric forceps , a surgical instrument similar to a pair of tongs, useful in extracting the baby in a difficult birth. He, his brother, and his brother’s descendants preserved and prospered from their private technology for 125 years. They went to a fair amount of effort to preserve the secret: the pregnant patient was blindfolded, and all others had to leave the room. The Chamberlens specialized in difficult births among the rich and famous.
More recently, in 1998, Yoel Fink et al published a method of constructing a multilayer thin-film dielectric mirror that is highly reflective over a broad range of wavelengths at all angles – something that the books said couldn’t be done. Joshua Winn was playing with a code modeling dielectric stacks and noticed that it seemed to reflecting over a wide range of angles – which fairly rapidly led to a theoretical explanation of why this would work. But if memory serves, after that method was published, it turned out that five different optics shops had been doing this for years – in Russia, England, and the US. They just never felt like publishing, and why should they have?
Or consider the history of the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) , one of the most useful algorithms known to man. John Tukey had an idea for speeding up the calculation of the discrete Fourier transform: Dick Garwin saw that it was incredibly useful and pushed it, while Cooley wrote the program. But the idea goes back a bit further in time: Good published a related idea in 1958, L. H. Thomas in 1948, Danielson and Lanczos in 1942, Stumpff in 1939, J.D. Everett in 1860, A. Smith in 1846, and F. Carlini in 1828. The first treatment of the algorithm, and the only one as general as the Cooley-Tukey article, was by some geek named Carl Friedrich Gauss, back in 1805 (17 years before Fourier published his work) . An unpublished paper on this topic was included in Gauss’s complete works, published ( in Latin, of course) in 1866. If someone (a Jesuit?) had just looked in the right place and talked to Babbage, the British would have been doing digital signal processing in the Crimean War.
Sometimes the future is already here, but not generally known. Sometimes it’s hidden, sometimes it’s forgotten, sometimes it’s in Latin. There have to be better ways of finding and disseminating those secrets.