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

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11.6 Step 5 – critical revision

Once a solution has been obtained it is then necessary to explore the extent to which it effectively solves the problem and where necessary revise it. Although more attention has been given to the moment of inspiration during the act of insight than to any other stage of invention, it is this process of critical revision that is usually the longest, most difficult and costly stage.

Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.

(Thomas Edison, quoted in a newspaper interview)

As is implied by Thomas Edison's famous saying, the insight needs to be coupled with hard work on the details to enable a bright idea to be transformed into a working prototype (Figure 50).

Figure 50
Figure 50 Edison in his laboratory in Orange, New Jersey, at 5.30 am on 16 June 1888 after having worked continuously for several days improving his phonograph (Source: Edison National Historic Site)

Like the process of exploration this critical revision might take months, as with Edison's light, or years. There were 4 years between James Watt's idea for improving the performance of Newcomen's steam engine by using a separate condenser to keep the cylinder as hot as possible, and his incorporation of this idea in the first full-size engine in 1769. Watt didn't have enough capital to devote his efforts full-time to solving the many technical problems involved in turning his idea into an efficient working machine. In addition he saw some of his ideas stolen and exploited by others. In a moment of despair that is familiar to inventors frustrated by the many obstacles in their path he wrote, ‘Of all things in life there is nothing more foolish than inventing’ (letter to his friend Dr Black, 1769).

Not only is the critical revision step necessary to move from the act of insight to a working invention, it is also a key factor in the process of transforming the invention into a commercially viable innovation. Indeed it was another 6 years before the first Watt steam engine went into commercial use for draining a Midlands coal mine in 1775, 10 years in all after his first act of insight. He was only able to achieve innovation thanks to his partnership with Birmingham manufacturer Matthew Boulton, which provided the capital and the entrepreneurial skills that Watt lacked but that were needed to help develop and sell his invention.

Activity 11

The average British person uses 160 litres of water a day, and often in a wasteful way. What do you identify as the problem, and what exploration might you do next with a view to reducing the water used?


The problem is water shortages and increasing costs of supplying and buying water. At the consumer's end of this problem I would examine how water is used to see if any solutions suggest themselves. First thoughts include putting a brick in the cistern, using proximity-sensitive taps, and finding ways to store and use rainwater.

With practically any example of invention it's possible to see how it moves through these five stages as it is developed. As well as these stages common to inventions, it's also possible to identify certain characteristics common to inventors.