Inventors and inventions
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 7, 2021.
Have you ever dreamed of becoming a
great inventor—of having a fantastically clever idea that changes
society for the better and makes you rich in the process? The history
of technology is, in many ways, a story of great inventors and
their brilliant inventions. Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb,
Henry Ford and the mass-produced car, or, more recently, Tim
Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Inventing isn't just about coming
up with a great idea; that's the easy part! There's also the matter of turning an idea into a product that
sells enough to recoup the cost of putting it on the market. And
there's the ever-present problem of stopping other people from
copying and profiting from your ideas. Inventing is a difficult and
often exhausting life; many inventors have died penniless and
disappointed after struggling for decades with ideas they couldn't
make work. Today, many lone inventors find they can no longer compete
and most inventions are now developed by giant, powerful
corporations. So, are inventors in danger of going extinct? Or will
society always have a place for brave new ideas and stunning new
inventions? Let's take a closer look and find out!
Artwork: Inventions are useful, practical creations of the human mind. All our minds work in roughly the same way, so it's not really surprising that different people can have similar ideas for a problem-solving invention at almost exactly the same time.
What is invention?
That sounds like a trivial question, but it's worth pausing a moment to consider what "invention"
really means. In one of my dictionaries, it says an inventor is
someone who comes up with an idea for the first time. In another, an
inventor is described as a person of "unique intuition or genius"
who devises an original product, process, or machine.
Dictionary definitions like these are badly out of date—and probably always
have been. Since at least the time of Thomas Edison (the mid-to-late
19th century), invention has been as much about manufacturing and
marketing inventions successfully as about having great ideas in the
Artwork: Thomas Edison's electric lamp owed much of its success to clever
marketing. This wasn't the first electric light, but it was the first really practical and commercially successful one. Artwork courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Some of the most famous inventors in history turn out, on closer inspection, not to have originated ideas
but to have developed existing ones and made them stunningly
successful. Edison himself didn't invent electric light, but he did
develop the first commercially successful, long-lasting electric
light bulb. (By creating a huge market for this product, he
created a similarly huge demand for electricity, which he was busily
generating in the world's first power plants.) In much the same way,
Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi can't really be described as the
inventor of radio. Other people, including German Heinrich Hertz and
Englishman Oliver Lodge, had already successfully demonstrated the
science behind it and sent the first radio messages. What Marconi did was to turn radio into a much more
practical technology and sell it to the world through bold and daring
demonstrations. These days, we'd call him an entrepreneur—a
self-starting businessperson who has the drive and determination to
turn a great idea into a stunning commercial success.
Photo: Guglielmo Marconi didn't so much "invent" radio as make it practical and popular. Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress.
It's important not to underestimate the commercial side of inventing. It takes a lot of money to develop
an invention, manufacture it, market it successfully, and protect it with patents. In our
gadget-packed homes and workplaces, modern inventions seldom do
completely original jobs. More often, they have to compete with and
replace some existing gadget or invention to which we've already
become attached and accustomed. When James Dyson launched his
bagless cyclone vacuum cleaner, the problem he faced was convincing
people that it was better than than the old-fashioned vacuums they had already. Why
should they spend a fortune buying a new machine when the one they
had already was perfectly satisfactory? Successful inventions have to
dislodge existing ones, both from our minds (which often find it hard
to imagine new ways of doing things) and from their hold on the
marketplace (which they may have dominated for years or decades). That's another reason why inventing is so difficult and
expensive—and another reason why it's increasingly the province of
giant corporations with plenty of time and money to spend.
How and why do people invent things?
According to the well-known saying, "necessity is the mother of invention"; in other words, people
invent things because society has difficult problems that need
solving. There's some truth in this, though less than you might
suppose. It would be more accurate to say that inventions
succeed when they do useful jobs that people recognize need doing.
But the reasons inventions appear in the first place often have little
or nothing to do with "necessity," especially in the modern age
when virtually every need we have is satisfied by any number of
existing gadgets and machines. Where, then, do inventions come from
and why do people invent them?
Artwork: The discovery of how DNA worked revolutionized crime-fighting and forensic science—and will have huge impacts on medical science and technology in the future.
This picture is a simplified illustration of the DNA double helix.
Some inventions appear because of scientific breakthroughs. DNA fingerprinting (the process by which
detectives take human samples at crime scenes and use them to
identify criminals) is one good example. It only became possible
after the mid-20th century when scientists understood what DNA was
and how it worked: the scientific discovery made possible the new
forensic technology. The same is true of many other inventions.
Marconi's technological development of radio followed on
directly from the scientific work done by Lodge, Hertz, James
Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and numerous other scientists who fathomed
out the mysteries of electricity and magnetism during the 19th century. Generally, scientists
are more interested in advancing human knowledge than in
commercializing their discoveries; it takes a determined entrepreneur like
Marconi or Edison to recognize the wider, social value of an idea—and turn theoretical science
into practical technology.
Trial and error
But it would be very wrong to suggest
that inventions (practical technologies) always follow on from
scientific discoveries (often abstract, impractical theories).
Many of the world's greatest inventors lacked any scientific training and perfected
their ideas through trial and error. The scientific reasons why their
inventions succeeded or failed were only discovered long afterward.
Engines (which are machines that burn fuel to release heat energy
that can make something move) are a good example of this. The first engines, powered by steam, were
developed entirely by trial and error in the 18th
century by such people as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. The
scientific theory of how these engines worked, and how they could be
improved, was only figured out about a century later by Frenchman
Nicolas Sadi Carnot. Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific
inventors of all time, famously told the world that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration"; he had little or no scientific training and owed much of his success to persistence
and determination (when he came to develop his electric light, he tested no fewer
than 6000 different materials to find the perfect filament).
Photo: Steam engines weren't developed scientifically: they evolved slowly and gradually by trial and error. As Nicolas Sadi Carnot later pointed out, they could be extremely inefficient machines—which meant they used a huge amount of fuel (coal) to power themselves. But that didn't matter in an age where coal was relatively cheap and abundant and people cared less about pollution.
Inventions that evolve
Some inventions are never really
invented at all—they have no single inventor. You can comb your way
through thousands of years of history, from the abacus to the
iPhone, and find not a single person who could indisputably be
credited as the sole inventor of the computer. That's because
computers are inventions that have evolved over time. People have
needed to calculate things for as long as they've traded with one
another, but the way we've done this has constantly changed.
Mechanical calculators based on levers and
gears gave way to electronic calculators in the early decades of the 20th century. As
newer, smaller electronic components were developed, computers became
smaller too. Now, many of us own cellphones that double-up as pocket
computers, but there's no single person we can thank for it. Cars
evolved in much the same way. You could thank Henry Ford for making
them popular and affordable, Karl Benz for putting gasoline
engines on carts to make motorized carriages, or Nikolaus Otto for
inventing modern engines in the first place—but the idea of vehicles
running on wheels is thousands of years old and its original inventor
(or inventors) has long since disappeared in time.
Artwork: VELCRO®: George de Mestral chanced on the idea of a clothing fastener entirely by accident. Here's a drawing from his invention US Patent 3,009,235: Separable fastening device (filed 1958, granted 1961) courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Some inventions happen through pure luck. When Swiss inventor George De Mestral was walking
through the countryside, he noticed how burrs from plants stuck to
his clothes and were hard to pull away. That gave him the idea for the
brilliant two-part clothing fastener that he called VELCRO®. Another
inventor who got lucky was Percy Spencer. He was experimenting with a
device called a magnetron, which turns electricity into microwave
radiation for radar detectors (used for direction-finding in ships and
planes), when he noticed that a chocolate bar
in his pocket had started to melt. He realized the microwave
radiation was generating heat that was cooking (and melting) the
food—and that gave him the idea for the microwave oven. Teflon®, the
super-slippery nonstick coating, was also discovered by accident when
Roy Plunkett accidentally made some strange white goo in a chemical
laboratory. Its amazing nonstick properties were only discovered and
put to use later. All these inventions, and numerous others, were
chance discoveries produced by accidents or mistakes.
From IBM and Sony to Goodyear and AT&T, many of the world's biggest, best-known corporations have
been built on the back of a single great invention. IBM, for example,
grew out of an earlier company selling intricate mechanical
census-counting machines developed by Herman Hollerith; Sony made its
name selling cheap, high-quality radios made with tiny transistors;
Goodyear owes its name (and its chief product) to Charles Goodyear, a
hapless inventor who finally developed durable, modern, "Vulcanized"
rubber after a lifetime of trial and error; AT&T can trace its
roots back to the telephone patented by Alexander Graham Bell in
1876. But a modern company can't survive and thrive on one great idea
alone. That's why so many companies have huge research and
development laboratories where inspired scientists and engineers are
constantly trying to come up with better ideas than the ones on which
their original success was founded. As marketing genius Theodore
Levitt pointed out in the 1960s, visionary companies need the courage
to try to put themselves out of business by coming up with new
products that make their existing ones obsolete; companies that rest
on their laurels will be put out of business by their inventive
competitors. This kind of corporate invention—companies trying to
out-invent themselves and one another—is very much the way the world
The world of corporate invention
Photo: Inventors have to start somewhere: The Apple ][ computer made Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak rich and famous, but they started their lives making and selling their original Apple I in a garage belonging to Jobs' parents.
There are probably more people trying to invent things now than at any time in history, but relatively few
of them are lone geniuses struggling away in home workshops and garages. There will always be room for lucky individuals who have
great ideas and get rich by turning them into world-beating products.
But the odds are stacked increasingly against them. It's unlikely you'll
get anywhere tinkering away in your garage trying to invent a personal computer that will change the
world, the way Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs did back in the mid-1970s
when they put together the first Apple Computer. To do that, you'd
have to set yourself up in competition with—guess who—Apple
Computer (which became the world's richest company in 2011), staffed with
legions of brilliantly creative scientists, engineers, and designers,
and with billions of dollars to spend on research and development.
Really prolific inventors might file a few dozen patent applications
during their lifetime, if they're lucky; but the world's most
inventive company, IBM, files several thousand patents every
single year. Companies like IBM have to keep on inventing to keep
themselves in business: inventions are the fuel that keep them going.
Photos: Nylon—the power behind your toothbrush: Could anyone develop such a fantastic material tinkering away in a garage? Not likely. In our sophisticated 21st-century world, it takes well-funded corporate research labs to come up with amazing new chemical materials like this. Read how it was developed by Wallace Carothers for DuPont in our article on nylon.
Think of inventions in the 19th century and you'll come across lone inventors like Charles Goodyear,
Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, George Eastman (of Kodak)—and
many more like them. But think of inventing in the 20th and 21st
century and you'll come across inventive corporations instead—such
companies as DuPont (the chemical company that gave us nylon, Teflon®,
Kevlar®, Nomex®, and many more amazing synthetic materials),
solar cells, lasers, CD players,
digital cellphones, commercial fax machines, and CCD light sensors were developed), and 3M (pioneers of Scotchgard textile protector and Post-It® Notes, to name only two of
their best-known products). It was Thomas Edison who transformed the world of inventing, from lone inventors to
inventive corporations, when he established the world's first ever invention "factory"
at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876.
Photo: Thomas Edison essentially invented the
idea of corporate invention at his Menlo Park and (later) West Orange research labs.
In recognition of its significance, West Orange is now a designated National Historical Park.
This photo shows one of the West Orange machine shops where Edison and his colleagues worked on new inventions.
Credit: Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive,
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
These days, corporations dominate our world, and they dominate the world of inventing in exactly the same way. If it's
your dream to become a great inventor, go for it and good luck to
you—but be prepared to take on some very stiff, very well-funded,
corporate competition. If you succeed, congratulations: maybe you'll prove to be the founder of
the next Apple, AT&T, or IBM!
What are patents and why do we need them?
Artwork: A drawing from George Eastman's original Kodak film camera patent, US Patent 388,850: Camera (filed and granted 1888) courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Imitation may be the "sincerest form of flattery." But if you spend years developing a great invention
and plow all your life savings into getting it manufactured, you're unlikely to be "flattered" when someone
tries to copy it and make money on the back of it. That's why the world has patents. A patent is a
legal document that records, in great detail, how an invention works, what makes it original, when it
was first invented, and who owns the rights to it. Society moves forward through the development of
great ideas but, for that to happen, the people who come up with those ideas have to be able to make
at least some money out of them (even if they don't get rich). Patents make it possible for inventors to
earn money from their inventions for a limited amount of time before the rights expire. At that point, society as a whole benefits because the idea behind the invention effectively becomes public property (we say it enters the "public domain").
Filing a patent can be lengthy, complex, difficult, and expensive; typically, it takes about two years from the date
when you apply for a patent to the time when it is formally granted to you (largely because there are so many
patents being applied for—several hundred thousand a year in the United States alone). Another problem is that patents apply only in certain territories so, if you want to protect an invention throughout the world, you have to take out patents simultaneously in multiple countries through agencies such as the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the
European Patent Office (EPO). One more difficulty is that not everything can be patented. Ideas and scientific discoveries are not covered, for example.
Despite all these difficulties, taking out a patent is still an essential step to protecting an invention.
Chart: Is the world becoming ever more inventive? This chart shows how the number of patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office has grown dramatically over the last half century.
Drawn by us using data from US Patent and Trademark Office: Statistics.
You can read some of the original descriptions of the greatest inventions of all time in the records of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), many of which have been indexed by Google. I love reading these because you get to discover the inventor's own thoughts and ideas about how their machines worked. Here are a few you'll recognize:
- US patent #3,630: Door Lock (Yale Locks) by Linus Yale. Granted June 13, 1844.
- US patent #31,128: Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus (Elevator/Lift) by Elisha Graves Otis. Granted March 7, 1876.
- US patent #174,465: Improvement in Telegraphy (Telephone) by Alexander Graham Bell. Granted March 7, 1876.
- US patent #223,898: Electric lamp by Thomas Edison. Granted January 27, 1880.
- US patent #821,393: Flying machine (Airplane) by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Granted May 22, 1906.
- US patent #2,495,429: Method of Treating Foodstuffs (Microwave Oven) by Percy Spencer. Granted January 24, 1950.
- US patent #2,929,922: Masers and Maser Communications System (Laser) by Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes. Granted March 22, 1960.
More about patents