Technology progresses by a combination of discoveries about nature and inventions using those discoveries. The patent office definition for "invention" is a combination of old elements in which the result equals more than the sum of the individual results of the individual elements. But why are only some people successful at these inventions? I had the good fortune to work for one of America's great inventors, Jacob Rabinow, and because I was a junior-grade inventor myself, we discussed the subject at length. The following is my own understanding. If you have a different insight, I would like to hear it.
The first element is genetic. Obviously, smart people are better inventors than dumb people. But many highly intelligent people don't invent, while plenty of dummies do quite often. Just as genetic aptitude exists for music or mathematics, so does aptitude for invention. Mr. Rabinow used a test to find invention aptitude, which I fortunately passed and then administered myself. I will never forget the extreme cases of the highly trained mathematical engineer with a fine work record who received a zero, and the engineer who covered page after page of different inventions to solve the same problem. People are different!
Another element is passion. A productive inventor works and dreams with a compulsion to produce an invention that will solve a problem or produce a result. We have all heard of Edison's "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration," but what makes the inventor run? Money? Certainly, but why do I have a hobby of anachronistic inventions that could only have been implemented in ancient times—what's the market for a high efficiency catapult? Prestige and pride? Yes, certainly. Compulsion? No doubt. Inventors don't have passive and bland personalities. Psychiatrists probably have something to say on this matter.
What happens inside of the inventor's head so that inventions come forth? We think it's a process of free association, combining random pairings of everything we know and simultaneously modifying each, a process of more or less random thought experiments. Inventing certainly isn't a logical, orderly, engineering procedure. I await the computer program whose artificial intelligence produces inventions. It follows that the more things we know, the more pairings we create. A perfect inventor knows all about everything.
The first result is massive junk, so there's the simultaneous editing process of dumping the junk and holding on to the needles in the haystack. The more we understand the laws of nature and their mathematics, the quicker, easier, and better we cull the junk and save the gold. Physical experimentation clarifies the mental process. Of course, the formal engineering that follows needs no explanation to the readers of this magazine.
The last and hardest step is persuading others to respect and use the invention. I regret to say that most people have hostility toward most new ideas and are very creative when devising objections to them. This rule applies even to managers who employ inventors to invent! On the other hand, invention is a respected art in some organizations, and inventors are rewarded with raises, promotions, and respect.
An inventor's most difficult task is the sale of his or her invention to an outside company. Few ever make it. Most inventors who actually earned money from their inventions did so as entrepreneurs who founded companies to make and sell the products that they invented, and finally cashed out by selling the companies.