2.2 The inventive drive
What events and ideas spurred people to come up with thousands of inventions in the last 100 years?
Ron Hickman was a do-it-yourself enthusiast who damaged a chair being used to support a piece of wood he was sawing. Instead of merely being annoyed at the accident he set about designing and building a prototype of a combined workbench and sawhorse to prevent further damage to his furniture. This became the Workmate (Figure 1), which to date has sold well over 50 million units.
James Dyson was unhappy with the reduced suction power of his domestic vacuum cleaner as the bag filled with dust. So he took the industrial cyclone technology used to extract harmful particles by centrifugal force from factory paint shops and sawmills, scaled it down and applied it to improve the performance of domestic cleaners. His bagless cyclone cleaner has had worldwide success(Figure 2).
If you can't be sure people will want to buy a new product in large enough numbers, then it's a financial gamble to try to commercialise an invention. However there are big money rewards for any individual or company brave enough to take risks. The cumulative effect of this combined inventive and commercial drive has led to the sorts of changes observed by the visitor from 1906.
At the start of the twenty-first century technological innovation seems to be accelerating. This has resulted in an amazing variety of new products, processes and technical systems developed to meet ever more sophisticated sets of requirements. In the Westernised world at least, innovation is widely believed to be vital for ensuring the economic prosperity not only of individuals and commercial organisations, but also of nations.
In 2003 the prime minister of the UK Tony Blair said,
The creativity and inventiveness of our people is our country's greatest asset and has always underpinned the UK's economic success. But in an increasingly global world, our ability to invent, design and manufacture the goods and services that people want is more vital to our future prosperity than ever.
Innovation, the exploitation of new ideas, is absolutely essential to safeguard and deliver high-quality jobs, successful businesses, better products and services for our consumers, and new, more environmentally friendly processes.
(Department of Trade and Industry, 2003, p. 3)
Progress itself is often defined in terms of the ability of individuals and organisations to invent new products and processes, devise improvements to existing products, and make a success of selling such innovations on the market. Products developed over the last 100 years such as the telephone (originating in the 1870s), motor vehicles (1880s), television (1920s), computers (1940s) have transformed the world and the way people organise their lives.
Equally important, inventive skills have been applied to developing new materials and manufacturing processes, enabling new and improved products to be made more efficiently with lower labour and manufacturing costs and with less overall environmental impact. The invention of faster and more efficient processes has enabled the quality of innovative products to be steadily improved over the lifetime of a product – at the same time the price to customers has been reduced, therefore increasing availability and profits.
This process of steady improvement can continue for a long time, at least until the market is saturated or a newer innovation comes along that has a competitive advantage – cheaper, easier to use, more reliable or does the job better. Most mature, everyday products are now relatively cheaper than when they were introduced and certainly perform more reliably.
For example the ballpoint pen was invented by Laszlo Biro in 1938. The first Biro pen to go on sale in the UK in 1946 cost 55 shillings (£2.75), which was more than half the average weekly wage at the time(Figure 3). It required refills and service to be carried out by the retailer. However, in 1953, Marcel Bich developed a process for manufacture and assembly of ballpoint pens that dramatically increased the volume of production and reduced the cost of each pen. Nowadays you can buy a perfectly adequate, reliable ballpoint pen for a few pence. At the time of writing (2005) the BIC Cristal (Figure 4), direct descendant of the original Biro, cost less than 20 pence and more than 5 billion BIC ballpoints are being sold each year (around 14 million each day).
The timescale for the widespread take-up (known as diffusion) of many innovations is shortening. For example it took radio 37 years to reach an audience of 50 million listeners, TV about 15 years to reach the same number of viewers and the World Wide Web just over 3 years to reach 50 million users.
Over the period since the invention of radio the UK and US populations increased by 1.5 and 3 times respectively, so population increase alone doesn't explain a tenfold increase in the take-up rate of innovative products. The industrial and social infrastructure has become increasingly effective at producing and selling new products. The increasing speed of diffusion of many innovations suggests we are experiencing revolutionary change.
However, there is actually much continuity in the way in which innovation occurs and society adapts to it. Much has changed over the last 100 years but many of the institutions and much of the commercial structure of our society would be broadly recognisable to the visitor from the past. In reality, change caused by innovation is more evolutionary and less transforming.