6.1 Evolutionary development
Most of us have some experience of the evolutionary development and the success of new technology. The Walkman personal stereo cassette player has evolved into the Discman CD player and more recently into digital music players. The computer has developed from its beginnings as government and university research machines in the 1940s (the first electronic computer filled an entire room and had a memory of 16 kilobytes) to palm-sized personal digital assistants each one of which has more computing power than that used in the Apollo moon landings. The mobile phone has become one of the fastest spreading innovations in history, going from less than 5 per cent ownership in the UK in 1990 to more than 70 per cent by 2003.
But these successes are only the tip of the innovation iceberg. For every product, successful or not, which reaches the market there are many more that never get that far. It has been estimated that no more than 2 per cent of inventions go on to become innovations. And for every successful innovative product there are many that do not achieve commercial success and are eventually (or quickly) withdrawn.
Can you think of examples?
I can think of the Sinclair C5 vehicle, the laser disk, Betamax video cassettes and the 8-track audio cartridge.
Yet the urge to invent remains strong and the commercial rewards of success can be spectacular. There are almost 5 million patents currently in force worldwide. More than 1 million new patent applications are made each year – almost 500 000 of these each year by the Japanese alone. In addition there are many more inventions worldwide that are not patented.
In Part 2 I'll look at what motivates people to invent and at how they do it.