The much-abused term “reinventing the wheel” — together with near synonyms such as “shape-shifter” and “pathfinder” — implies a change so significant that the place arrived at is qualitatively different from wherever anyone had been before. Not just a better wheel, but a wholly reinvented one, an undiscovered country, another dimension.

If these terms are not devalued to insignificance, there can be very few reinventors or shape-shifters in a generation. The metaphorical producer of the “better mousetrap” is unlikely to deserve the sobriquet; Kalashnikov’s tweak to automatic assault rifles was commercially significant — which is why the AK-47 has been so successful — but it was hardly a game-changer compared with the invention of gunpowder or the atomic bomb. Real, rather than incremental, change is rare: Gutenberg and printing, Morse and telecommunications, some unknown ancestor and the wheel.

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