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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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11.3 Step 2 – exploration

This is the period when, following the identification of the problem, attempts are made to understand it better and to make a stab at designing a solution. This might be a short process or it could take years and involve a detailed search for information, experimenting with different designs, even redefining the problem as a result of this activity.

Alexander Graham Bell adopted a problem-focused strategy when exploring the problem of designing a working telephone. This strategy is one typically used by scientists and engineers and involves exploring and redefining the problem exhaustively before coming up with a solution. A different approach, often adopted by designers, is to move quickly towards an outline solution based on their own experiences and preferences, which is then tested against the problem and modified as necessary to solve the problem more effectively. This more directed approach, known as a solution-focused strategy, was often used by Thomas Edison.

In the case of Edison's incandescent electric light discussed earlier this process of exploration took more than 12 months. Before he finally achieved his first working prototype Edison systematically experimented with thousands of different materials that might be used for a filament. His first patent was for a bulb with a platinum filament that, although it worked, was a complicated construction compared with the bulbs that were in mass production less than 2 years later. These used a carbonised bamboo filament, itself later replaced by other materials (Figure 42). The point is that this experimentation led to a better understanding of the problem and its possible solution, which resulted in the eventual design being more reliable.

Figure 42
Figure 42 Page from one of Thomas Edison's notebooks showing the results of experiments on a carbonised filament electric lamp (Source: Edison National Historic Site)