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The History of Innovation…and where ideas come from

March 30th, 2010 by admin Leave a reply »

Once in a while, I like to get an historical perspective on Creativity and Innovation.  I found four websites that are very helpful in doing this:

1) my favorite site is The Great Idea Finder - this site looks like it was created in 1996 and in serious need of  a web 2.0 programmer, but it’s full of great research, ideas and history.  Check out It’s About Time for a day-by-day history timeline, or Invention and Inventor Lists for interesting lists of patents, inventors, entrepreneurs and more.

2) About.com Inventors - this community is full of great insights on the history of inventors (a subset of creators and innovators in my mind).  Wonderful information on the history of many famous inventions and inventors -or search by your favorite invention

–> an added bonus to the site is “Today in History” - pick any date and the site has a wiki-list of famous inventions, patent filings, and note-worthy “aha-moments” that occurred on that date.   For example, this day, on March 30th, the following happened: “1956 Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted.” Click on “Birthdays” and you find:

  • 1842 – Dr. Crawford Long was the first physician to use ether as anesthetic
  • 1865 – German physicist, Heinrich Rubens
  • 1876 – Clifford Whittingham Beers was a mental hygiene pioneer
  • 1892 – Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach
  • 1894 – Russian airplane builder, Sergei Ilyushin
  • 1912 – Andrew Rodger Waterson was a noted naturalist

3) the Inventors Timeline – takes you back to the Paleolithic Era then forward to present time, identifying all key inventions known to the world…a very interesting way to see how the pace of technology is quickening.  

4) the Timeline Index – a nice visual timelime of Inventors through the recent ages – also an interesting timeline for other areas such as artists, philosophers, actors, etc).  Click on any person’s name and it gives you a detailed page on their biography, related links, etc.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The big question that people often ask me about my work with entrepreneurs and innovators is “So, where do ideas come from? Conventional wisdom is that ideas come from an “AHA” moment that an inventor has – for example, the moment that Art Fry at 3M Corp realized he had inadvertently created a sticky substance that could be used on paper to create the “post-it” note,  or the moment that Archimedes sat in his bath tub and realized that the water he had displaced held an important clue to measuring density of matter.
But in looking HISTORICALLY at actual inventions that have made produced the most profound changes in human history —   the wheel, electricity, the automobile, the light bulb, the small-pox vaccination, the computer chip, the television,  the Worldwide Web — we find that there was no “AHA” moment…there were a myriad of smaller progressive discoveries leading to a key discover from one person or group that seems to solidify

I was speaking at the Computer History Museum this past week and arriving early, took the time to look at the work of Charles Babbage, who is regarded as the “Father of Computing.”  In 1822 he created an entirely mechanical “Difference Engine” (see photo I took to right, owned by Nathan Myrvold) which was meant to calculate mathematics (polynomials) and he later created a “Analytics Engine” that used punch cards. Babbage’s inventions resulted from a hundreds of years of European discoveries of how machines work, including work dating back to the time of Leonardo Davinci and the abacus dating back to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.  It was Babbage who lived in a time where the “technology” (small metal parts) and mathematical understanding enabled him to implement the first working prototype.  Babbage worked through his lifetime to complete these designs.  The engine was a creation born from a series of historical baby steps.

Take a more recent invention – the PDA…Palm gets much of the credit for it, but its birth was due to a number of companies all working the overall product from various angles.   Psion, Apple,Xerox, others …a visit to the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale shows the tale. There was no “aha” moment of innovation in the discovery of the PDA – it too seems to be more Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, author/entrepreneur/blogger/professor Scott Berkun makes a pretty good case for the fact that innovations never seem to evolve in a straight line.  Ideas are formed, tested out, failures occur, competitors emerge in an area of great “hope” and eventually some lucky company emerges as the one to popularize the new innovation.

According to Berkun, ideas come from either hard work in a specific direction, or the combination of two or more (heretofore separate) ideas, or curiosity, or wealth, or necessity or luck — or some combination of all of these.

In his book The Medici Effect, my friend Frans Johansson points out that some of the most prolific bursts of new ideas (such as those found in 15th Century Italy, banked by the Medici Family in Florence) come from a confluence of different disciplines or cultures, combined in new and unusual ways.  Johansson delineates “directional” and “intersectional” innovation.  Directional innovation – like the light bulb which  Thomas Edison found through years of testing, is evolutionary with a focused linear path.  Intersectional innovation – for example the Googles combination of new search algorithms with an approach to listing advertising as words -  is ALSO evolutionary.  The research the Google founders did at Stanford was  descendant  from previous work at Yahoo and Infoseek, and the advertising approach they used was borrowed from goto.com (later became Overture).  It was the fortuitous combination of these two ideas (intersection) that led to the most innovative company of all time.   Serendipity certainly played a role for both Edison and Google founders – more on that in a future blog post.

I’m challenged to think of an example of innovation which was not in some way evolutionary – building upon prior ideas, research or thought.

I’m curious if any of my readers can think of examples…

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4 comments

  1. david f cox says:

    Any innovation, like any human action, must be preceded by existing ideas, but those ideas may be wrong. A montgoflier brother reasoned that clouds are made of smoke (made of water droplets), clouds are lighter than air (water droplets are not). If he would fill a paper bag with smoke …

  2. Dan Roberts says:

    Randy,

    This is quite a challenge. A great quote from Paul Gauguin comes to mind:

    “Out in the sun, some painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second… You see the sequence.”

    The closest I think anyone could come to an idea that is not evolutionary, is if they copy from nature. Using Biomimicry to create something new is about as pure as it gets. However, even this argument has its flaws. Even copying from nature suggests that a person is copying from an evolutionary process or the work of a creator.

    Humans are able to formulate ideas by recombining stimuli that they have encountered in their lives. If someone doesn’t copy from nature, then they are drawing on the ideas of other men or women.

    If I were playing devil’s advocate with myself, I might suggest that humans are capable of coming up with ideas for things that don’t exist on our earth. However, without making up fake or non-sensical inputs, I think anything we come up with is still rooted in stimuli we have encountered in our lives. (i.e. anti-gravity boots do not exist on earth, but the idea is rooted in our knowledge of gravity)

    I have a full chapter in my new book, The Innovator’s Sourcebook, dedicated to the origin of ideas. If your readers are interested, they can find out more at:
    http://www.innovatorssourcebook.com

  3. Panama says:

    I am unquestionably bookmarking this blog and sharing it with my friends. You will be getting plenty of visitors to your website from me!

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