Articles


Am I An Inventor?
Steve Quanrud

When I think about inventing something, I usually envision solving what's annoyed me recently. Bathing the dog comes to mind -- the bared teeth, the near-drowning in soap. But enough about me.

Without realizing it, just thinking about a problem means I've started inventing. Look around - virtually everything 'man-made' began as a problem needing to be solved. From the Mars Lander to the cappuccino maker, all our tools, gadgets and buildings have one thing in common - they started in someone's head.

Think you're not an inventor? Then ask yourself, have you ever: Had an idea you knew would make a great invention someday, only to see it later at the store? Thought how you could change something at work to make things better or safer? Known you could improve on something you bought that doesn't work so hot?

Chances are, since you're reading this, you probably want to be an inventor - but you don't know whether your ideas are any good, or how to take them forward. One thing holding us back is the stereotype. Thanks to Hollywood, we think of inventors as bearded scientists in white lab coats; or professors who speak in math; or geniuses making robots out of lawnmowers. While some of that may be true, the fact is many inventors - and great inventions - derive from the average gene pool.

Consider the following inventions and inventors:
  • Geo-synchronous orbit of 22,000 miles above the earth, which makes satellites orbit above the earth at the same spot; invented in 1945 by Arthur C. Clarke, a science-fiction writer.
  • Champagne; invented in 1670 by a theologian, Dom Perignon, who fermented his wine twice, and accidentally ended up with bubbly that was an instant hit in Europe.
  • Portland cement; invented in the 1820s by Thomas Aspdin, a bricklayer. He discovered it by accidentally overheating a mixture of limestone and clay, which became extremely hard when mixed with water. Without Portland cement, many modern buildings, bridges and roads would be impossible to build.

True, Arthur C. Clarke had a scientific background, but his unique satellite idea led to entire new industries such as rocketry and telecommunications, which made room for thousands more inventions by others.

Where to Begin?

While we needn't be technical experts or even college-educated to invent, how do we go about it? One obvious starting place is going with what you know. Suppose you work on a manufacturing line. They're usually designed by people who don't do the work on them, meaning that very production line is ripe for an invention or three.

Another place is just viewing what exists in your world. Toys are a whole industry needing constant inventions. Next time your kids or grandkids are over, such as when they're programming your VCR for you, ask them what they like and why.

I also suggest ideas to help others less fortunate. I know a blind individual who was unemployed five years ago. He learned how to program computers using inexpensive software that could talk through the computer speakers. He now has a programming career thanks to some creative people out there.

Just for getting this far in my article, here's a free suggestion: Invent for our aging population. One day we'll all want and need many more inventions for health, entertainment, travel, work and comfort. Give me a device that remembers my vitamins, washes the dog, shows Clint Eastwood westerns and I'll line up for it.

Like it or not, if you truly want to take your idea to the formal invention level, then it's expected to wear a U.S. Patent label, or at least say 'patent pending.' Applying for a full utility patent tells the product world you're serious, and likewise weeds out folks who aren't. But the patent process is grueling. And patents don't guarantee success. It's estimated only 5% of all patented ideas make a true profit.

Many new inventors don't realize it, but inventions needn't be grandiose, cool, or amazing. Nor are inventions always giant leaps. The original IBM Personal Computer was built mostly with existing components made by other companies, and it used operating system software another company wrote. While atrociously difficult to use, ugly and boring, what made the PC different was that it was relatively affordable for a computer and modestly reliable.

The importance of boring yet reliable technology was made clear to me on a trip to Albania in the 1990s. During my stay, we had electricity one day out of six. So living three weeks with one hot shower, little refrigeration, and no central heating, I decided low-tech inventions like roads and streetlights were just fine after all.

Greed Is Good, Simple is Better

What makes a GREAT invention? Money-makers are highly desirable, but the really great ones are those we can't live without. For me, the fax is up there because it immediately enhanced my productivity. During my first assignment as a writer for IBM in the 1980s, I devoted up to 10 hours weekly to copying documents, hand delivering them, and then collecting them. Then came faxes. Within a few months, that dismal paper chase was reduced 90%.

Other favorite inventions of mine are the wheeled suitcase (which hasn't been around that long!) and pre-washed lettuce, which is great for my low-carb diet. What are your favorite inventions? Take time to write them down, and ask yourself why they're on your list. You'll discover what matters to you, and that's a great well of inspiration.

So you want to be an inventor? Keep the ideas simple. Follow basic rules of inventing such as getting non-disclosure agreements *before* preparing the patent application. Read up on the shady side of invention marketing. Do a patent search to see if your idea is original. Join an inventor's club.

Above all, be unique and aim to help others while making a reasonable profit. Then your ideas, like your success, just might fly.




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