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

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5.2 Inventors and inventions

An inventor is an individual or group able to generate an idea for a new or improved device, product or process. The idea must then be transformed into concrete information in the form of a description, sketch or model.

An invention is an idea, concept or design for a new or improved device, product or process that is available as concrete information in the form of a description, sketch or model.

So an inventor may have many ideas for new products or improvements to existing processes, say, but these do not constitute an invention until the ideas have been transformed into something real, such as drawings or a prototype with the potential for practical application. As you will see later on, the conditions for granting a patent to protect an invention from being copied are that the invention must be new, must not be obvious to someone who knows about the subject and must be capable of industrial application.

Given that the process of invention takes place over time it is often not possible to be precise about the exact moment that an inventive idea becomes an invention. For example in 1878 the prolific US inventor, Thomas Edison, began work on inventing an incandescent lamp powered by electricity. He was enthused by a new kind of generator that had been developed to power a small arc-light system and realised the commercial possibilities of being the first to provide a large-scale electric lighting system. He had a vision of lighting up an entire city district with such a generator.

However the arc-light (bright light produced by a continuous electric arc leaping between two electrodes) suffered from two problems: burnout of the tips of its electrodes meant regular replacement, and the problem of controlling the gap between the electrodes when they were constantly being burned up by the arc. Edison saw the need for inventing an electric lamp that would be effective and long lasting. He thought that the solution might lie in the incandescent lamp – that is, a lamp in which light is produced by using electricity to heat some substance to a high temperature, causing it to glow.

Others had been trying for years to achieve this goal, and in fact the first patent on an incandescent lamp was taken out in Britain in 1841. The situation of many people working towards solving the same technological problem is common and often results in simultaneous invention – as you saw with the invention of the telephone. The most notable of these other inventors was Joseph Swan, an Englishman who had produced a design that featured a carbonised paper filament that glowed inside a glass when electricity was passed through it (Figure 8). The air was evacuated from the inside of the bulb so that oxygen would not cause the filament to burn up. However no one, including Swan, had managed to produce a filament that would glow for a useful length of time before being destroyed.

Figure 8
Figure 8 On the left is Swan's experimental carbon pencil lamp, 1878–9. On the right is the first prototype of Edison's incandescent lamp, 1879. (Source: Science & Society Picture Library)

Edison's challenge was to find a suitable material for the filament that would permit a bright glow without burning up too quickly. He had ideas about how it might be done but it took a year of searching for and experimenting with thousands of different filament materials. He also searched for a method of achieving the necessary vacuum inside the light bulb. Eventually he produced a working prototype of his carbon filament lamp in October 1879. This consisted of a thread of carbonised cotton bent into the shape of a horseshoe and mounted inside a glass bulb (Figure 8, right) that had the air sucked out of it(Figure 9). When connected to an electric current the new ‘electric candle’ burned for almost 2 days.

Figure 9
Figure 9 Light bulb evacuation pumps

This apparatus was a combination of several existing technologies – Geissler and Sprengel's mercury pumps and McLeod's vacuum gauge. After only a few weeks of improvements in late 1879, Edison's team could evacuate a bulb to a millionth of an atmosphere in 20 minutes.

This first reliable working prototype could be said to be the invention. However before the electric light could be offered for sale to customers there was still a great deal of work to be done by Edison and his team of workers at his Menlo Park laboratory in north-east USA (Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10 Edison's Menlo Park laboratory with experimental light bulb apparatus on the left, in front of a table of batteries

Activity 2

Can you think of an inventor other than those named previously in this unit?


I thought of Owen MacLaren, the retired engineer and grandfather who invented the lightweight, foldable baby buggy in the 1960s.

Activity 3

Can you think of a recent invention other than those mentioned previously in this unit?


The proximity card is fairly new. It gives access to secure buildings when it is held near to an electronic sensor that is connected to an electric door lock.