Every invention is an act of creativity. As with scientific discovery, it cannot be achieved by following specific rules. At least two conditions are necessary for any successful invention: First, there must be the interest and ingenuity of an individual. Then there must be the conditions and the support for trying out an idea. Industry does provide the latter to those who, in its view, have the necessary inventiveness. To this extent, the contribution of industry to inventions is positive and has proved to be fruitful in many instances. However, industry also puts certain constraints, if not restraints, on the inventor: the goal of the inventor is often spelled out by management, be it to improve a product, to make a process more efficient, to develop a new item for a well defined purpose, or whatever. Also, often, though not always, the goal of industrial invention is to improve what is already there, rather than come up with something altogether new. By this policy it could curtail the freedom of the inventor, for it should not be forgotten that invention is creation, and creation is a totally free process.
There is another aspect of invention that must be mentioned in the context of the 20th century on. We have seen earlier the role of the conscious application of science to technology. It is this aspect of technology that distinguishes it from the technologies of earlier centuries; it is also largely responsible for the enormous successes and some of the spectacular achievements of modern technology.
One may be led to believe from this that the modern inventors the major innovations were people who were highly trained in their respective fields. A close examination of facts leads to some surprises. A great many fundamental inventions came from individuals who had very little, if any, technical academic training in the particular field of their invention The classic example of this is Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific of American inventors: he was not exactly a trained scientist. Philo Farnsworth, who received a patent for television transmission, had little contact with mainstream science when he was working on his project. Sometimes, people trained in one field have made significant inventions in an entirely different field: an aircraft engineer designing new bombs, or a mechanical engineer contributing to chemical inventions. Occasionally, theoretical scientists declare categorically that an idea is unworkable before an inventor even begins his initial efforts. In some instances such predictions of impossibility have been proved to be wrong. This was the case with trans-Atlantic radio transmission.
One reason for the success of the so-called untrained inventors is simply this. While training and education make us aware of many ideas and aspects of the world, they also mold our thinking in specific ways. We learn to look at things from commonly accepted points of view, and imagine certain results to be absolutely true simply because they are so pronounced by eminent authorities and so stated in well recognized text books. The untrained person, on the other hand, though he or she may suffer from the disadvantage of not knowing what has already been achieved, is also spared from the restrictions of having to look at things only from certain narrow perspectives. Such a person enjoys greater freedom if only because he/she has not been forced into seeing things in accordance with standard practice. It must be clearly understood, however, that only the truly gifted and original mind will be able to bring forth fruitful results from its state of unawareness of well established science. Ordinary minds can only suffer from such ignorance. This is often forgotten by well meaning educators who argue that all children would benefit if they were not subjected to the usual educational process.
September 11, 2010