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

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Invention and innovation: An introduction

3 Part 1: 2 Exploring innovation

3.1 Your experience of innovation

Before I look in more detail at what's involved in the processes of invention and innovation, I want you to consider your own experience of innovation as an end user.

Now attempt Exercise 1. Consider the impact of one innovation on you and your family and, using the internet, look briefly at the development history behind that innovation. You'll need to make notes summarising what you discover, so make sure you have some means of recording the information and your comments.

Activity 1: Exploring innovation

Look around at technological products at home or at work. Pick a product that interests you.

1 Using an internet search engine such as Google (recommended), AlltheWeb, Ask Jeeves, or MetaCrawler (which searches other search engines) carry out a quick internet search for the history of your product's development.

A good start would be to find a timeline, which will show you the key stages in the development of the technology and the various individuals and companies likely to have been involved. Then you can investigate particular aspects of the timeline to reveal a more detailed picture.

If you spend around 1 hour on the search, you're likely to come up with a surprising amount of information. See how many of the following questions you can answer.

  • (a) When and where was the product invented?

  • (b) Who invented it?

  • (c) What was innovative about it?

  • (d) Was it invented in response to a need or because of developments in technology?

  • (e) Was it an immediate success?

  • (f) Has its design changed over time?

  • (g) Has it led to any related or spin-off products?

2 Map your own or your family's experience of this product onto its development history by answering the following questions.

  • (a) When did you or your family first get the product?

  • (b) How long were you aware of the product before buying it?

  • (c) Was it a new gadget or the latest version of a well-established product?

  • (d) Did you delay buying it because of its price, the cost of using it or doubts about its reliability?

  • (e) Have you since replaced it with an improved or updated version?

Discussion

Here's my own attempt at this exercise carried out for the telephone.

1 Internet search results

I used Google to carry out a number of searches using various combinations of the words ‘telephone’, ‘history’, ‘timeline’, ‘invention’. I followed up a range of sites, usually finding those associated with a university (‘edu’ for US sites, ‘ac’ in the UK) or a museum yielded the most authoritative information. Also the archives of companies associated with the telephone (BT in the UK; AT&T, Bell and Western Union in the US) contained some useful information. Finally many individual hobbyist sites contained some fascinating detail, although its accuracy needed to be treated with some scepticism and required double-checking with other sources.

When and where was the product invented? The accepted date is 1876, but a form of telephone may have been invented before then. It was first commercialised in the USA, but a number of inventors in different countries had developed prototypes.

Who invented it? The accepted inventor is Alexander Graham Bell but claims have been made on behalf of other inventors.

What was innovative about it? The chief form of quick, distance communication at the time, the telegraph, was one-way, indirect and needed skilled operators to translate and transmit Morse code. The telephone offered instant, two-way speech communication directly between individuals and required no special skills to operate.

Was it invented in response to a need or because of developments in technology? It seems to have started with inventive individuals developing new technology. Then once this new means of communication became available increasing numbers of people wanted to use the telephone and a new need had been created.

Was it an immediate success? The telephone was by no means an immediate success but rather experienced a steady growth, starting with a small number of specialised users.

Has its design changed over time? Yes. Mouth and earpieces were amalgamated into a telephone set but still as separate items. As the technology improved, both transmitter and receiver were incorporated into a single handset and later a dial was added. Plastics permitted new shapes, and recently miniaturisation has allowed an increasing number of functions to fit into ever-smaller handsets.

Has it led to any related or spin-off products? The original telephone has evolved into a number of forms such as the mobile phone and the videophone. There have also been spin-off products based on the technology, such as sound reproduction devices.

2 A consumer's experience

When did you or your family first get the product? My parents first acquired a domestic telephone in 1968.

How long were you aware of the product before buying it? We'd been aware of the telephone all our lives but it seemed like a luxury item.

Was it a new gadget or the latest version of a well-established product?There didn't seem to be anything particularly novel about our first telephone.

On the surface the apparatus design had not changed significantly for 40 years, with a dial on the front and a large handset sitting on a cradle on top.

Did you delay buying it because of its price, the cost of using it or doubts about its reliability? At first a combination of cost and not knowing many people with a phone meant that there didn't seem to be any point in owning one. Reliability didn't seem to be a problem.

Have you since replaced it with an improved or updated version?

Developments in the technology and increased competition following privatisation have resulted in a variety of cheap handsets and innovative features. That first handset my parents rented lasted us for 10 years but now my family replaces telephones frequently, reflecting the most recent innovation.

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