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

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4.10 What has been learnt from the history of the telephone?

Here are some points about invention and innovation that seem to have emerged from considering the case of the telephone.

  • Invention is an ongoing process not a one-off event.

  • It's not always possible to identify one individual as the inventor of a new technological product – even in well-known cases.

  • Boldness and determination, allied with sufficient resources and a good support team – especially good patent lawyers – seem to be just as important as technical ingenuity.

  • It can take a great deal of imagination to foresee how a new technology might be used, particularly for potential financial backers not directly involved with the development of the technology.

  • An innovation needs a competitive advantage over existing technologies or products in order to succeed.

  • The success of an innovation depends on regular improvements to its performance, reliability and design. This is usually achieved by building on a series of innovations in supporting technology, improvements in manufacturing processes, component performance, new materials use and so on.

  • The affordability of innovative products is important – this is related to the cost of its manufacture and the relative affluence of buyers.

  • There's a relationship between new technology and needs – new technologies can create new markets that provide an incentive to make further improvements to the technology.

  • A group of early, sometimes specialised users of an innovation can play an important part in giving momentum to its sales.

  • As the use of an innovation spreads it changes from being a novelty or luxury to a necessity for increasing numbers of people.

  • There are fashions in innovative products, shaped by marketing and advertising, which can stimulate demand for a particular product.

  • Governments can affect the context for innovation in particular areas of technology.

  • There are factors that can suppress or delay the spread of an innovation, particularly in the early years of its development: patent disputes over ownership; resistance from people with a stake in established technologies; protective inertia in business and institutional structures resisting radical change.

  • Research and experimentation into one technology can contribute to the development of another spin-off technology.