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

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17.1 Getting the technology to work

A fundamental requirement for successful innovation is that the invention must work. It mustn't violate any scientific laws and it must be capable of being transformed into a working prototype. In addition to getting the technology to work it must be designed to be easy to use and reliable, attractive, safe and environmentally friendly. It must also be designed so it's capable of being manufactured on a scale that makes it economic to produce and to buy.

Sometimes an idea for an invention is ahead of the technology, materials, components or knowledge needed to deliver it. The idea for television was suggested in 1877, almost 50 years before its actual invention. While the basic principles that were to lead to television were understood by the scientific community, these hadn't yet been translated into the practical working components required – cathode ray tubes for example. Furthermore even the idea needed further time to develop. At first it was perceived as a two-way interactive device for talking to others on screen – the ‘telephonoscope’ (Figure 58). Then it was imagined as the transfer over distance of a single image onto paper (‘telephotography’) or screen (‘electric telescope’). Eventually the idea of transmitting moving images gained ground but it was still being thought of as a means of two-way communication (an extension of the telephone) until the first regular one-way television transmissions started in London in 1932.

Figure 58
Figure 58 ‘Edison's Telephonoscope’, Punch cartoon dated 9 December 1879 (Source: Punch Cartoon Library)

Sometimes the early prototypes of an invention just don't work well. As mentioned in Part 1, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877(Figure 59). A diaphragm transformed sound into vibrations in an attached needle, which in turn traced a pattern on tinfoil stretched around a hand-cranked drum. When the process was reversed the pattern recreated the sound, which returned through the diaphragm.

Figure 59
Figure 59 Edison's earliest model of the phonograph, 1877

While Edison's first ‘talking machines’ caused quite a stir for 6 months and led to considerable speculation as to their potential uses (Figure 60), it soon became clear the invention had been launched prematurely. Edison's list of possible uses for his invention was optimistic (see Box 7), particularly his preference that it should be used as a serious business machine. The tinfoil cylinders of the first phonographs played for little more than a minute and reproduced the human voice in a barely recognisable form.

Figure 60
Figure 60 The poster announces 4 days of demonstrations of the phonograph in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the summer of 1878 (Source: Gelatt, 1977)

It took almost 20 years of further development before a reliable phonograph started to become widely available for domestic use (Figure 61). Wax recording cylinders replaced the tinfoil, constant-speed electric motors (and later on, cheaper clockwork mechanisms) replaced Edison's initial hand crank, recording techniques and quality steadily improved (early recording artists had to record each cylinder individually), then by the early years of the twentieth century the recording disk had replaced the cylinder.

Figure 61
Figure 61 Berliner gramophone, about 1891. Its turntable was rotated manually, to play 180 mm (7 inch) disks at a designed speed of 70 rpm (Source: Gelatt, 1977)

The story of the unfinished state of the Edison phonograph could be repeated for many famous technological innovations:

  • The cameras of the 1840s called for exposure times of 10 to 90 seconds.

  • The cumbersome and slow typewriters of the mid-nineteenth century were scarcely an improvement over writing with a pen.

  • The first commercial internal-combustion engine, the vertical Otto and Langen engine of 1866, stood 7-foot tall and delivered 3 horsepower.

  • The Wright brothers’ first powered airplane stayed aloft only 57 seconds.

  • The television receivers of the 1920s displayed small images (1.5 by 2 inches) that were blurred and flickered badly.

  • The first electronic computer occupied 1800 square feet of floor space and weighed 30 tons.

At first glance none of these appeared to be likely prospects for the basis of a new industry, yet all did so.

(Basalla, 1988, p. 142)

Box 7 Edison's ideas for uses of his phonograph

A year after inventing the phonograph Edison published an article listing ten ways in which the public might find the invention useful. In his personal order of priority these were:

  1. letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer;

  2. phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part;

  3. the teaching of elocution;

  4. reproduction of music;

  5. the ‘family record’ – a registry of sayings, reminiscences, and so on by members of a family in their own voices, and the last words of dying persons;

  6. music boxes and toys;

  7. clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home or going to meals;

  8. the preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing;

  9. educational purposes, such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory;

  10. connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

Music reproduction was ranked fourth because Edison thought this was a relatively trivial use of his invention. Even when he started production of phonographs on a commercial basis – after a 10-year diversion into developing and improving the electric light – he concentrated on selling it as a dictation machine, resisting efforts to market it for playing music. Other people saw and exploited the entertainment potential of Edison's invention and carried out improvements to the technology to make it an effective and attractive product. It was not until the mid-1890s, however, that the inventor himself came to accept that the primary use of this invention was for entertainment rather than as a useful piece of office equipment.

Sometimes the take-up of an invention is delayed by the non-availability of suitable materials to enable the invention to perform effectively or by the lack of development of a process technology to enable the efficient and cost-effective manufacture of the invention. For example Frank Whittle's turbojet engine patented in 1930 did not work efficiently until manufacturers developed a new nickel-chrome alloy to enable the turbine blades to withstand the high temperatures and stresses involved. And it could not be manufactured on an industrial scale until improvements had been made in metal processing and manufacture. This was not achieved on any significant scale until after the Second World War, more than 10 years after patenting. By this time Whittle had long since allowed his basic patent to lapse because his employers, the RAF, had little faith in the feasibility or potential of his invention in the early stages of its development.

Sometimes the obstacle is that the most appropriate application for a new technology hasn't yet been found. There are often a number of different uses to which any invention can be put. The first uses are not necessarily those for which an invention will eventually become known. The first steam engines were not for transportation but were used to pump water from mines. The most widespread application of the hovercraft principle is in hovering lawn mowers. Soft paper tissue was developed by Kimberley-Clark as a substitute for cotton wool as a medical dressing during the First World War. As a result of looking for new applications it was marketed as a make-up remover from 1924. It was only when users reported on its qualities for nose blowing that it was relaunched as Kleenex tissue handkerchief (Figure 62).

Figure 62
Figure 62 Originally used for medical dressings during the First World War, then for sanitary towels and then makeup removers, the use of paper tissue as a handkerchief took some time to evolve (Source: John Frost Newspaper Service)