Invention, Innovation & Design

The definition of invention in the IB Design Technology Diploma Guide Glossary is the process of discovering a principle – a technical advance in a particular field often resulting in a novel product. So an inventor may have an idea for a new product but these ideas themselves do not constitute an invention until they are transformed into something more tangible such as a model or a prototype. The general conditions applying to a patent for an invention are that the invention must be new, not obvious to someone knowledgable about the subject and it must be capable of an industrial application.

Design on the other hand is concerned with drawings, models etc which provide information about the proposed new idea so an inventor often produces many different designs in order to try and optimize the original idea into a suitable invention. James Dyson, for example, produced over 2000 models representing different aspects of his idea for a new (cyclone) vacuum cleaner before he arrived at a suitable invention (prototype) ready for production.

The Design Technology Guide’s definition of innovation is the business of putting an invention into the marketplace and making it a success. In order to do this the inventor often requires the assistance of a Product Champion defined in the Guide as an influential individual, usually working within an organization who develops an enthusiasm for a particular idea or invention and “champions” it within the organization. The champion is often trying to persuade the organization that it is worth investing in a particular new product or he/she is prepared to defend an innovative new product from criticism within the organization during its development stage. Sometimes the champion is outside the organization but has influence within it. If no support is forthcoming from a champion the inventor will need to take on this role in order to push the invention forward. An entrepreneur on the other hand is a persuasive individual providing the necessary resources or organisation necessary to turn an invention into an innovation. Entrepreneurs are likely to be involved at an early stage of an innovation’s development either taking the risk of investing their own money or persuading others to invest. The problem is that most potential investors are reticent about making an investment in the early stages of an invention’s development as they prefer to minimize the risk by waiting until it is clear that the invention will be a success. Much money is usually required to turn an invention into an innovation paying for people and equipment needed to refine the invention into a practical prototype ready for volume production.

Invention/Innovation Case Study – Thomas Edison and the Electric Lamp

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor. In 1878 he began work on an incandescent lamp powered by electricity. Edison gained his inspiration from a new type of generator that had been developed to power a small arc-light system and he realised the commercial opportunities of being the first to provide a large-scale electric lighting system. Edison expressed constructive discontent with the arc-light as it worked by a continuous electric arc leaping between two electrodes but the problem was controlling the gap between the electrodes when they were constantly being burnt up by the arc meaning regular replacement was necessary. Edison wanted his lamp to be much more reliable and his idea was based on the incandescent lamp in which light is provided by using electricity to heat a substance to a high temperature causing it to glow.

Edison was not the first inventor to work on the problem. The first patent for an incandescent lamp was filed in Britain in 1841. Joseph Swan invented a lamp with a carbonised paper filament that glowed inside a glass when electricity passed through it. The air was evacuated from inside of the bulb so that oxygen would cause the filament to burn up. However, Swan could not produce a filament that would glow for a useful length of time before being destroyed. This was the challenge for Edison and after year of research and development he produced a working prototype of a lamp consisting of a thread of carbonised cotton bent into the shape of a horseshoe and mounted in a glass bulb that had the air sucked out of it. When connected to an electric current the new “electric candle” burned for almost 2 days. Edison realised that this was only the start of the innovation process as he needed to develop a complete electric lighting system, not just an electric lamp. Also, Edison had to ensure that his electric lighting system could be reproduced on large scale in order to achieve commercial success i.e. become an innovation. Edison and his team at the Menlo Park laboratory in north-east USA continued to develop the electric lamp and related products necessary for a large-scale reliable lighting system.

Edison was an inventor-entrepreneur. Prior to the development of the electric lamp he had achieved commercial success by making improvements to the telegraph which provided most of the money to build his Menlo Park laboratories and workshops. Working with a team of technicians and mechanics from 1876 Edison produced 400 patented inventions including the microphone, the phonograph and the vacuum tube later used in wireless telegraphy. Edison therefore had the facilities and the finance to work on the development of his electric lighting system.. As Product Champion Edison used his contacts and powers of persuasion to convince financiers to provide capital for more R & D, industrialists to consider installing the projected system in their factories and politicians to think about the large-scale city installation of a lighting system. Edison had a strong reputation which meant that within weeks of announcing his intention to develop electric lighting financiers were queuing up to invest – not a typical situation for most inventors!

It is not always easy to identify the exact position that an invention becomes an innovation. For example, the first full-scale use of Edison’s electric lamp outside of the laboratory was in May 1880 when 115 of them were installed on the new steamship Columbia owned by Henry Villard. However, as Villard was a friend of Edison it could be argued that this was not a truly commercial transaction and I gave Edison the chance to put his invention into operation under carefully controlled conditions as well as providing a public display of its worth. One of the first commercial installations of Edison’s complete lighting system was for the lithography factory at Hinds, Ketcham and Company, New York in early 1881 though the first full-scale public demonstration of Edison’s urban lighting system was along the Holborn Viaduct in London, January 1882. However, it was a year later in 1883 when the installation of the electric lighting system took place at Pearl Street Station in New York that success was widely recognised leading to diffusion into the marketplace.

For many innovations there is period when rival designs competet with each other leading to improvements to the original design and the emergence of a dominant design. The Design Technology Diploma Guide defines dominant design as the design contains those implicit features of a product that are recognized as essential by a majority of manufacturers and purchasers. In 1883 Edison and Swan merged their electric light companies rather than challenge each other’s patents resulting in the  production of the Ediswan carbon filament lamp in 1884 which became a dominate design. It consisted of a screw-in metal base; a carbonised metal filament with platinum electric wiring attached to a glass stem and sealed in a glass bulb. The product was so successful that competitors did not attempt to improve upon it but just copied it – an imitative strategy. Edison successfully sued rivals for infringement of the patents allowing his innovation to dominate the market for many years.

Edison’s lamp can be viewed as a robust design. Robust design is defined in the Guide as flexible designs that can be adapted to changing technical and market requirements. Edison’s lamp was adaptable in the sense that it could fit into existing gas lamp brackets and this increased the opportunity for diffusion into the marketplace because it could make use of some of the existing infrastructure in homes and offices.

The label of radical design could be attached to Edison’s lamp but it was actually the result of an attempt to provide a form of lighting that improved on existing methods. Also, the provision of an effective system of electric lighting depended upon the incremental improvement in a range of associated technologies – glass blowing, vacuum pumping, electricity distribution etc. Radical designs and innovations are often incremental in terms of their scientific and technological development but radical in their application and impact on society.

The same problem occurs when trying to decide whether an innovation was due to market pull or technology push. There was dissatisfaction with what was already on the market before Edison’s lamp. Gas lamps entailed considerable fire risk and impact on air quality as did oil lamps and candles. Electric arc-lighting was too bright for domestic use and required regular maintenance. However, the considerable amount of scientific research which underpinned the technological development of the lamp by Edison and his team suggests that technology push was also important to the resulting design and innovation.

Links to Assessment Statements: 1.1.18; 2,1,4; 2,2,2; 2.2.3; 2.2.4;2.2.6; 2.2.7;2.2.8; 2.2.9;2.2.10; 2.2.14; 2.2.16; 2.3.5; 2.3.17; 2.3.18; 8.1.5;

Source: Taylor, Open University T307 Innovation: Designing for a Sustainable Future, Block 1 Invention and Innovation 2006

1 Comment
  • Rob Anderson
    September 29, 2010

    Great Blog,

    All your blogs are very relevant to IB DP students thanks for all your work. Helps immensely with the theory background…..

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