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

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18.2.1 Relative advantage

In order to succeed, an innovation has to be perceived as offering advantages relative to existing comparable products or services. For example, it has more chance of selling if it is cheaper to make and buy, does the job better or does something previously not possible, offers more features, is easier to use, or is reliable and safe. Relative advantage is sometimes called competitive advantage.

A good example is how the steady reduction in size and increase in efficiency of the electric motor encouraged the development of a range of labour-saving domestic appliances with rapid growth in the UK in the 1960s and 70s. Devices such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and food mixers at first offered an obvious advantage to users in reducing the effort involved in carrying out domestic chores and they diffused widely. Each new generation of machines offered an advantage over the previous generation. So with electric washing machines in the UK by the 1950s many consumers had a basic tub with a revolving blade for washing and a pair of powered rollers fixed to the top of the machine for wringing out the water, which was actually invented 50 years earlier (Figure 67: This was the first British-made compact machine of its type. It electrically heated the water and powered a contoured rotating disc, or pulsator, set into the side of the tub. Its distinctive features included a hand-operated wringer that could be folded down into the machine and a hose to remove the water after washing. The lid that covered the drum to prevent splashing could be attached to the other side of the wringer as a tray to receive the wrung clothes.). Then by the 1960s there were twin-tubs with a washing tub and a separate spin-drying tub (Figure 68). By the 1970s the automatic washing machine (invented 40 years earlier) started to reach the mainstream (Figure 69: This is one of the new type of automatic washing machines that incorporated full wash, rinse and spin cycles and sold well in the late 1960s. The Hoover Keymatic featured a novel means of setting eight different wash programmes.). By the 1990s these were usually microchip-controlled (invented 10–15 years earlier). Once the market was established the advantage of these products turned to offering more features for the same price. So there were, say, more wash programmes or greater temperature control or higher spin speeds for the money. And more recently attention has turned to washing machines that offer more energy efficiency in operation and reduced environmental impacts in manufacture, use and disposal. In order to maintain an advantage it's necessary to continuously improve the product. Look out for the latest improvements when you come to buy your next washing machine.

Figure 67
Figure 67 Hoover washing machine with wringer (model 0307), 1948 (Source: Science & Society Picture Library)
Figure 68
Figure 68 Rolls Duo-matic twin-tub, 1963, with the separate spin-dryer on the right (Source: Science & Society Picture Library)
Figure 69
Figure 69 Hoover Keymatic washing machine, 1963 (Source: Science & Society Picture Library)