Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.

For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.

1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Book Review of “How We Got to Now”

"Hubble's New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Hubble’s New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Remember back in high school when some teacher insisted that “science is fun” followed up by the inevitable directive to “pay attention and learn something”, all of which was about as well received by most of the class as a tooth ache?

Well, at least for some of us, the fun never left. Moreover, it has recently been revitalized by virtue of PBS’s recent TV series and the simultaneous publication of an accompanying book entitled How We Got to Now (Riverhead Books, 2014) , both hosted and written by the renowned and bestselling science author Steven Johnson. In each of the episodes and corresponding chapters, Johnson masterfully examines how innovations in glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light have evolved over the centuries to bring us into modern times. His onscreen and in-print enthusiasm, insight and eloquence make for an enlightening experience from start to finish.

Focusing particularly on merits of the book, the entire package of the author’s accessible and evocative  prose plus the generous helpings of photos and graphics have produced a work of science literature to behold. It is one of those uncommon instances where vivid narrations of science history combined with original analyses and supporting visuals take immediate hold of the reader’s imagination during every one of the six spheres of discovery. Clearly, he worked very hard to get all of this just right.

The most impressive accomplishment is how Johnson positions and threads several consistent themes throughout his text. First, is a phenomenon that lies at the very heart of this book: Innovations made to solve problem X often have completely unforeseen results upon issue Y. Just one of many extraordinary examples cited in every chapter involves the creation of a “flash light” by the famous muckraking writer and photographer Jacob Riis that enabled his to dramatically document the interiors of the squalid slums in New York with photographs in the late 19th century that later led to social reforms.

Second, inventors and their innovations benefit from networks of ideas and among like-minded entrepreneurs and scientists. This allows for new ideas to more readily be pollinated among innovators. Along similar lines, new breakthroughs often result in improvements and/or combinations built upon earlier and, at times, unappreciated advances. The author points to, among others, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs in this regard.

Third, innovators can be through of as “time travelers” who are so ahead of their time that the world is just not ready to appreciate and implement their work until years later when new and wholly unanticipated needs arise. Johnson concludes his book with the compelling story of how Lady Ada Lovelace developed the world’s first computer code while working with Charles Babbage on what historians consider to be the world’s first mechanical computing device, during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Who knew that their work would not be fully comprehended let alone implemented until more than a century later? No need to look any further than at the nearest desktop/tablet/smartphone to see what they ultimately have wrought across the entire world.

While this book is so thoroughly grand in its scope across six sectors of innovation including items ranging from the finely carved oil lamps in King Tut’s tomb to posting selfies on Instagram and many other world-changing leaps in between,  it nonetheless steadily maintains a personally boundless and infectious sense of wonder about the world. In so doing this, Johnson’s text effortlessly moves back and forth between a close-up examinations of specific new developments and then focusing on the cumulative perspective of how all of these advances continue to coalesce and evolve on a global scale. Indeed, for regular fans of quality science literature as well as for those readers who would otherwise prefer reading a grocery list to anything scientific, this book fully and expertly asks and answers just exactly how we got to now.

~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I also recommend another review of this book in the December 28, 2014 Book Review section of The New York Times, written by Jon Gertner. In turn, for any interested in reading further about the nurturing  of modern innovation, I further and highly recommend his own recent book entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012).