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

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7 Part 1: 6 Self-assessment questions

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Given the definitions you have learnt in Part 1, would you classify the following as an invention or an innovation?

  • (a) BIC ballpoint pen

  • (b) Flettner's rotor ship

  • (c) Edison's tinfoil phonograph

  • (d) Edison's bamboo-filament light bulb.


  • (a) BIC ballpoint pen – innovation.

    It is an innovation that not only reached the market – initially the military then the civilian market – but also went on to achieve great commercial success and become widely diffused throughout society.

  • (b) Flettner's rotor ship – between invention and innovation.

    This example is on the boundary between an invention and an innovation. It reached the working prototype stage but arguably not quite the point of first commercial use, with only one ship being commissioned by a third party.

  • (c) Edison's tinfoil phonograph – invention.

    It was the wax cylinder version that went on to be sold as an innovation.

  • (d) Edison's bamboo-filament light bulb – innovation.

    It was the dominant design used in the early commercialisation of the light bulb, compared with the carbonised cotton used in the initial invention.


Would you classify the following as examples of radical innovation or incremental innovation?

  • (a) Edison's phonograph

  • (b) compact fluorescent lamps

  • (c) Edison's electric light

  • (d) Bell's telephone.


  • (a) Edison's phonograph – radical.

    Radical in that nothing like it had existed before. It caused quite a stir at the time and since has had a widespread impact on the lives of generations of people. The initial invention made use of existing technology but in a radical way. The next 100 years saw steady incremental improvements in the technology.

  • (b) Compact fluorescent lamps – incremental.

    Incremental in that they didn't involve a major new step in the development of the technology but rather involved technical improvements to an existing product. However these were important improvements as they have gained an increasing share of the domestic lighting market.

  • (c) Edison's electric light – radical.

    Radical in terms of its eventual impact if less so in terms of its technology. Its ultimate success was dependent on incremental developments in many related areas of technology, for example vacuum pumps.

  • (d) Bell's telephone – radical in some ways.

    It was certainly radical in terms of its eventual impact on individuals and the organisation of society. But like Edison and the electric light, when you look closely at the development of the technology, you can see how it built incrementally on existing technologies and ideas.

These answers illustrate the blurring of the boundary between the two categories. Often the radical nature of an innovation lies in the original idea to use technology to do something previously unknown or never before achieved. The subsequent transformation of a radical invention into a practical innovation depends on incremental improvements in many aspects of the related technology. The two concepts are inter-related.


What are the four criteria that must be satisfied for an inventor to be granted a patent on an invention?


For an inventor to be granted a patent, an invention:

  1. must be new – the idea must never have been disclosed publicly in any way, anywhere, prior to the claim being filed;

  2. must involve an inventive step – the idea must not be obvious to someone with a good knowledge and experience of the subject;

  3. must be capable of industrial application – the invention can take the physical form of a substance, product, or apparatus; or it must be an industrial type of process;

  4. must not be excluded – an invention is not patentable if it is of a type listed as specifically excluded, although such lists vary in different countries.