Using the Past to Encourage Innovation
Invention is not just genius or inspiration. It’s a process that can be analyzed, using historical cases to understand how inventors work.
Many people do not appreciate what history can teach us about invention and innovation. Great inventions, it is commonly assumed, come only to incredibly smart people like James Watt, Nikola Tesla, or Steve Jobs; these individuals possessed exceptional mental abilities that allowed them to do the extraordinary. Many people tend to think of invention as a mysterious, unknowable activity. As much as we would like to characterize the brain as a computer, we cannot fathom how humans are able to create beautiful paintings, amazing scientific theories, or inventions that revolutionize daily life.
If you regard invention and innovation as the products of genius, luck, or mystery, it is easy to conclude that innovation cannot be taught: you are either born to be the next Thomas Edison, or you are not. Invention—like all creative acts—is not something that you can teach; you can nurture and inspire the next Elon Musk, but you cannot reduce invention to ten easy lessons. To teach invention, then, is to teach the unteachable.
Despite these popular notions, my colleagues and I at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia have been working to teach the unteachable to students for thirty years. We have approached invention as a process that can be analyzed, using historical cases to create a robust notion of how inventors work. Moreover, we have distilled principles and techniques to teach students how to be innovators.
Much of my professional life has been devoted to studying such major inventors as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla. Inspired by historian Thomas P. Hughes, I decided to study inventors because they often left substantial source material (notebooks, letters, testimony, and artifacts). And because nonacademic audiences are interested in inventors, you can use inventors to talk about a variety of social and ethical issues concerning technology with students, engineers, business leaders, and the public.’
I have stayed with inventors for so long because they raise hard questions about the nature of technological change. How do we make sense of both individual actions and social forces in history? Do such individuals as Napoleon or Edison “make” history, or are they merely the representatives of various interests?
Do ideas just exist “out there” in some platonic realm waiting to be discovered or invented by individuals? Or are ideas generally constructed by individuals and groups out of the cultural raw materials available at a given time? What kinds of knowledge and skills are involved in creating new technological artifacts? Can we characterize the nonscientific knowledge and skills involved in this creative work?
I began studying inventors in the 1980s by examining Elihu Thomson, a contemporary of Edison. Along with inventing a successful arc-lighting system and doing pioneering work with alternating current, Thomson was significant because, unlike other late nineteenth-century inventors who generally worked alone, he spent his career in a large company, General Electric. This gave me the opportunity to look at how the organizational environment affects the innovation process. Thomson’s career showed that innovation is a social process not only in the sense that it involves the interplay of individuals and groups, but also because effective innovation requires the coproduction of technological artifacts, corporate structure, and markets.
But as I read through Thomson’s letter books, filled with the memos he wrote to vice presidents and plant engineers, I realized that while I was learning a lot about how he moved his inventions through the company, I wasn’t learning as much about how he conceived of his inventions. Thomson viewed dictating letters as being one step removed from the creative work on the benchtop, and I came to agree with him. The research question then became how to get closer to the point of knowledge and artifact production.
To investigate more closely what inventors did at the benchtop, I started a new research project with my colleague Michael Gorman. Gorman is a cognitive psychologist who had been conducting simulations of how people solve scientific problems, and he welcomed the idea of using historical materials to investigate how people developed new technology. Together we looked at the history of the telephone because of the availability of substantial archival materials on Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, and Thomas Edison.’
We undertook a fine-grained examination of work at the inventor’s benchtop. We found we could borrow some ideas from the laboratory ethnographies produced by sociologists of science Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, and others, and we were encouraged by Peter Galison’s study of experimental methods in physics. However, we could not find much from the history of technology that could help us with this investigation with the exception of a brief study of Leonardo’s sketches by Bert S. Hall and Hughes’s ideas about the style and methods of inventors.’ Hence, we turned to a field with which Gorman was familiar, namely, cognitive science.
A dominant issue in cognitive science at the time was the tension between mental models and heuristics. Some major figures in the field — such as Philip Johnson-Laird — believed the key to understanding how people think was to comprehend the meta-ideas, or categories, by which they processed information, or what cognitive scientists call mental models. Other researchers—such as John Anderson and Herbert Simon—argued that cognition is much more about the strategies or procedures that an individual employs in thinking. These strategies and procedures are called heuristics.