Inventions are the lifeblood of technology. They are to technology what paintings are to art, symphonies are to music, and discoveries are to science, for they enrich the enterprise. The inventor is the hero in technology, yet he is seldom as well recognized as heroes in other fields. How many people know, for example, who invented air conditioning or nylon, or the wrist watch or the ball point pen?
Practically every aspect of civilized society had its origins in the mind of one or more individuals. Look around the room, and think of the variety of things you see: electric lamps and bookshelves, flower pots and pens, tables and picture frames, cushions, carpets, and curtains, mirrors and ashtrays. The list can go on and on. Each one of these had a prototype, and the original form was perhaps quite different from the one you see today. And we can think of a period in human history when the thing in question was not there, not even imagined. Indeed that is the common feature of all inventions: unlike the laws of physics, they did not exist before the advent of humans. Each and every one of them, be it a chair or a clip, a nail or reading glasses, or whatever, came from human mind and ingenuity. Many of the basic inventions of human civilization, such as the wheel and the knife, the pulley and the footwear, arose in such remote periods that we have no reliable records of who invented them or when or where.
At any given time a certain number of things and practices are in common use to serve the needs, welfare, and pleasures of society. Any new item (be it a process, a device, or even a design) that can be legitimately added to the list may be called an invention. Invention implies, above all, originality. An inventor is a person who, either by taking advantage of already known things and processes, or by utilizing entirely new knowledge, comes up with a thing or an idea that had never occurred before, and that is likely to be of value and practical utility.
Until the Industrial Revolution, and well into the l9th century, practically all inventions arose from the ingenuity of individuals working on their own. In the course of the l9th century, however, soon after the links between pure science and technology began to grow in strength, and factories and industries came to be centers where scientific knowledge was consciously being put to use for the manufacture of goods, inventions came to be regarded as an important and indispensable part for industry. This is what prompted A. N. Whitehead to declare that “the greatest invention of the l9th century was the invention of the method of invention.”
Many major inventions in our own times have been made, not in modest workshops manned by one or two ingenious tinkerers or in cozy corners in some homes – as used to be the case in past generations – but in the very heart of huge industrial research centers or government laboratories. Fluorescent lamps and transistor radios, electric locomotives and synthetic fibers, not to mention nuclear reactors and supersonic planes, all had their origins in industry. As a result, and also by recognizing the dominant role played by major industries in our society, some have argued that the days of the small inventor are gone, because it is big business and high technology that have taken over the role of making inventions. This view is also shared by the public at large.
A more careful examination of the particular case histories of inventions seems to suggest that this is not quite so. While it is true that inventions of significant import have come from industrial research establishments, not every major invention has come from there, even in the 20th century. John Jewkes et al. [The Sources of Invention (1958)], who made a systematic study of the question, point out that a great many inventions which have had significant impact on 20th century life were either initiated or fully made by individuals working for the most part on their own. They list among such inventions, air-conditioning, catalytic cracking of petroleum, the helicopter, insulin, power steering, safety razor, wrist watch, xerography, and others.
September 10, 2010