So, hopefully, the Holiday break gave each of us sufficient time to digest Mark Twain’s quote (shared at the close of my last blog) and his words have stirred some thoughts within us about the topic of invention vs. innovation…
Mark Twain, a Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
If one agrees with or believes what Mr. Twain postulates…questions still remain. Is it possible for any original or true inventors to even still exist? Is it necessary for them to exist (and perform their magic)? Also, what about those self-titled “inventor” kinds who are really “innovators?” What role do they play/serve? Is the re-mixing, morphing or identifying different uses or purposes for existing products or inventions they perform of any use/value? And, should their “innovative” type behavior actually qualify or entitle them to self-claim and use the tern “inventor” (even if only self-titled) to reflect their actions?
Several sources attempt to offer meaning that might assist in dissecting and sorting out this complex issue:
- A brochure entitled “Who Is (and Is Not) an Inventor” published by Stanford University offers some insights.
- An explanation for invention submitted by the community sources offers distinctions.
- The definition “An inventor is considered the first person to create a new item or different way of doing something” shares more along with traits these so-called inventors might possess:
- Highly original thinkers;
- Seek out problem solving situations (or ways to improve on existing ideas);
- Desire to develop a useful item that fills a need;
- Willing/able to commit time to research and experiment;
- Diligent about documenting everything from idea inception to finished item;
- Able to constructively analyze experiments; and
- Commitment to persevere; and
- Satisfies goal of delivering a fully, completely usable and workable item.
- The definition “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships” was first published by James Webb Young in his book, “A Technique for Producing Ideas” in the 1940s.
Given these divergent definitions and explanations….it is likely we can concur that complexity clearly surrounds our attempt to distinguish and differentiate an invention from an innovation. When queried and debated, others also offer viable and constructive perspectives on the subject. The original dilemma again arises when the 27 Genius New Products are considered. “Are these truly ‘new’ products or have the original inventions simply been morphed or re-mixed in a way that is presented as a “new” product…but, is, in fact, a fortuitous re-mix or morphing of the original idea/invention?
As a wordsmith who continually seeks precision, accuracy and clarity in one’s selection of words – and, therefore, definition and use – a dividing line appears to need to be drawn between an item that demands work and commitment to unfold, identify, and bring to life as a brand new product – never been seen or used before – to the marketplace and the casual/random re-mixing, morphing or identifying of a different use or purpose for an existing product or invention. When considering this dividing line, I’m also pushed to pose the question: Does (and in what ways) the new item (invention) or the morphed item (innovation) truly enhance or expand the well-being and lives of the community/audience it is intended to serve? Below, I’ve offered some examples…see what you think – invention or innovation…
- Thomas Edison, born 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, was an inventor who certainly changed the world with his invention of the light bulb in 1880. Edison not only invented the light bulb, but also the systems to use it with such as electricity generators for homes. He also created systems for sound and film recording. Edison tried more than 1,600 different materials before discovering that bamboo worked best as the filament in his light bulb. He wrote more than 40,000 log book pages documenting and analyzing his experiments before finally perfecting the light bulb.
- Marion Donavon, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1917 received a patent in 1951 for her invention of a snap-on diaper cover that later became the inspiration for the first disposable diaper. Her first attempt at her invention (named Boater because she thought the diaper cover looked like a boat) involved sewing a piece of a shower curtain to a cloth diaper. Donovan wanted to avoid using safety pins, so she included snap closures on the sides. Like most inventors, Donovan thought of original ways to improve upon a product that wasn’t effective. The rubber infant pants made at the time caused diaper rash, were difficult to put on and take off the baby and the elastic edges tended not to fit very well around the legs.
Throughout my research and writing on this topic, my mind, as it usually does, drifted. I considered Walt Disney and wondered if he would be viewed as an inventor or an innovator? History shows that many of the stories that provided the foundation for his tales and characters were actually adopted and derived from stories created by others such as Grimm’s Brothers (Snow White), Dodie Smith (101 Dalmatians), Hans Christian Andersen (Little Mermaid), Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl (Dumbo) and many others?
So, in the end…despite my own desire to accurately define, clarify, and differentiate these complex and arduous concepts through exacting word selection, it is likely we will agree that Disney met (and exceeded) the second element proposed for distinguishing invention from innovation – the true enhancement and expansion of the lives and well-being of his intended audience through his inventive approach to innovation.
© 2013 EM Carlock
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