Innovations in minor technologies are a convenient place to inspect the fundamental characteristics of this phenomenon. For example, the handles on fishing reels.
A 'multiplier' is a reel that sits on top of the rod, not underneath it, with the axis of the spool crossing the rod.
When the angler casts, the mass of the bait, which is either a metal or wooden lure, or literally a natural bait, such as a dead or live fish, spins the spool which pays out line, the angler's thumb controlling the spin and bringing it to a stop when the bait hits the water. When the angler wishes to retrieve the lure the free hand winds the handle, re-engaging the gears and winding the line back on to the spool.
The reel's name arises from the fact that such reels were amongst the first to have geared systems, with one turn of the handle being multipleied by the gears to produce many revolutions of the spool. Nearly all reels of all designs are geared now, but the name has adhered to the device where it first appeared.
In the United Kingdom a right handed angler will hold the rod in their right hand, controlling the spool with the thumb of that hand, and use their left hand to wind the reel, the handle being on the left side of the reel.
However, in the United States, such an angler will make the cast with his right hand, but when the bait has touched the water will transfer the rod to the left hand, and wind the handle with the right hand, the handle being on the right side of the reel.
Multiplying reels sold in the UK are, as a standard, equipped with handles on the left, while in the US, such reels are sold with handles on the right.
Since these reels are a relatively recent development such a cultural divergence is very striking, but the explanation is straightforward.
The multiplier was developed from a simpler, usually ungeared, reel that was slung beneath the rod. Anglers made their cast by throwing the bait with the rod, usually held in the right hand, and either controlling the rotating reel with their left hand or paying out line that had previously been stripped off the reel and coiled at the angler's feet. Since the strong right hand was holding the rod, the handles of the reel were on the left side, and it was the left hand that reeled the bait back.
When the multiplier was first developed in the United States in the later part of the nineteenth century, it arose from the discovery that it was possible to cast more accurately by first rotating the rod so that the reel was on top, and controlling the spinning spool with the thumb of the left hand. Of course, in rotating the rod the handles of the reel were thus moved from the left of the rod to the right. Perhaps in the interests of speed, and to prevent the bait sinking into weed and other snags, these American anglers did not tend to return the reel to its position under the rod, but passed it straight to their left hands and turned the reel handles with their right hands.
This had some disadvantages, since the rod was now in the weaker left hand, making it harder to work the bait, and to hook and play fish. However, these difficulties are by no means overwhelming, and apparently too few American anglers felt or have felt that it was so inconvenient as to motivate them to ask that manufacturers should put the reel handles on the left side of the machine. They had just made one significant innovation, and were not in the mood for another.
However, when the multiplying reel arrived in the United Kingdom, the need to switch hands, from the stronger to the weaker, was perceived as a fault, and the handles switched to the left side of the reel, where they remain today.
While it is risky to claim to have put aside national pride in such matters, it is fairly obviously better to hold the rod with your right hand and wind with the left hand (if you are right handed), so the persistence of US anglers in winding with their right hands is an instance of real curiosity. Of course, the truth is that it is not cripplingly difficult to hold the rod with your left arm, and though your ability to hook and play the fish is impaired at first, with extended practise the angler develops some degree of ambidexterity, as I know from experience, having had to fish with American tackle when on flying visits. The disadvantage is small, for the persistent angler, however annoying and exhausting it may prove for the beginner.
Four points of interest relating to the theory of innovation arise from this micro-history:
1. Significant innovations appear to exhaust or satisfy the innovators, who may be unable or simply unwilling to push on very further and related innovations even if obvious and readily implemented.
2. When innovations deliver great advantages accompanied by minor disadvantages, additional, completing, innovations addressing those disadvantages may not be called forth since the population will become accustomed to the new condition and adjust to it.
3. By contrast, a population to whom the innovation is introduced in its finished form may immediately leap to add further improvements, and will not accept the innovation without these improvements, since they perceive the disadvantages as a barrier. In such cases personal or national pride seems a productive engine of willingness for further adventure.
4. When the advantage of the subsequent or completing innovations is relatively small, at least in the longer run, the uncompleted form may become dominant so that further innovation or completion becomes very unlikely (no one expects the left hand wind multiplier to sweep the American market). This particularly true where those using the incomplete form are not confronted with those employing the completed innovation. For example, there is no competition between American and British anglers that might motivate the adoption of the left hand wind multiplier.
With regard to angling, two further thoughts present themselves:
Firstly, no Englishman who has fished in the US can fail to be impressed by the physical skill of American anglers, who are on average and by any standards excellent fisherman, and in the matter of casting simply outstanding. It is at least possible that the ambidexterous behaviour required by the right hand wind multiplier has resulted in anglers that are simply more exercised and consequently agile than those in Europe, where because the machinery itself is very slightly better designed less is required of the fisherman. Indeed, it is conceivable that the advantages conferred by the improvement in design are outweighed by the compensating muscular and nervous, and perhaps intellectual development that results from the inferiority of the American multiplying right hand wind reel.
Secondly, the multiplier is generally used when fishing with artificial lures that require the angler to give life to the lure in order to provoke a strike from a predatory fish. It is possible, though a wild hypothesis, that the weaker, hesitant, and less regular movement imparted through the rod by the left arm and hand may be more attractive to fish, since it suggests an easy prey, or at least a more natural one. I have no further evidence for this suggestion beyond the commonplace observations that beginners at lure fishing are often surprisingly successful, and that very experienced lure anglers often observe that their lures are struck at moments of inattention, for example when the angler's concentration is broken by a sudden noise or a passing kingfisher or some such thing.