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Are There Any Real Inventors Left? 417

An anonymous reader writes "The BBC is running a story about invention and innovation, suggesting that there have been no truly new inventions in a long time. 'Consumers are presented with an "invention illusion," which is really little more than a marketing tool to give the impression of "breakthrough" products. This is a difficult cycle to break, particularly with the media's appetite for sensational stories, and it is hampering opportunities for credible companies without sexy stories. It also means that many entrepreneurs are looking for innovation in the wrong places and pursuing new product design ineffectively.' It leads to the question: what are the most recent things you can think of that have been actual, new inventions? Or has the high-tech revolution just been iterative innovation?"
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Are There Any Real Inventors Left?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:48AM (#42760205)

    Nearly all innovation is iterative. It has always been that way, so I've been told.

  • by jbmartin6 ( 1232050 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:51AM (#42760235)
    Any invention is just an addition to preexisting technologies. Bell et al. didn't invent the telephone in ancient Greece for a reason. There was all sorts of work to be done with sound, electricity, and magnetism first. The telephone was just adding voice capability to the telegraph, right?
  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:54AM (#42760257) Homepage Journal

    AFAIC there are plenty of inventions, most people aren't noticing them because these things today are much more specialised in nature. What they are really looking for and can't find is huge, gigantic breakthroughs, an antigravity device or perpetuum mobile of some sort. They can't see what is not immediately obvious, and what is not immediately obvious does not become a stand alone product in its own right.

    I even disagree with the supposed lack of 'cross-sector innovation'. There is probably more cross-sector innovation today than ever before in history, that's because the Inernet allows people to read about solutions that are found and used in other sectors and apply those to themselves. What this guy, Paul Martin says, is that there is "no recognition". Well, shit, that's the only thing I agree with: there is no recognition.

    Well sure there is no recognition, and he is the first to lack vision to recognise just how much 'cross sector innovation' is actually happening today compared to decades and centuries ago.

  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:54AM (#42760263)

    Indeed. Standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that.

    I think what TFA refers to by "true invention" is a big enough, or sudden enough iterative innovation.

    In this day and age, all scientists and innovators talk to each other all the time, and are aware of each other's work. There is no guy working for years in secrecy in his shed anymore. Hence the perceived - but false - lack of "true invention".

  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:01AM (#42760325)

    I think what TFA refers to by "true invention" is a big enough, or sudden enough iterative innovation.

    And I think it just shows a complete lack of knowledge on behalf of the writer, since there are many industries full of completely new inventions - from pharmaceutical research to medicine to the defense industry. Some of these have broken new ground. Of course since they are also highly specialized areas, you won't know about them unless you're in the field(s). But just because no one has invented the light sabre doesn't mean invention isn't happening.

  • by jiriw ( 444695 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:05AM (#42760351) Homepage

    To start with the actual lightbulbs: High yield white light LED technology. Sure, the photoelectric effect has been known for about a century. It took a while for the first practical applications to be available. LEDs being one of them. But you can't compare those little signalling LEDs of a few decades ago with the current lightbulb replacing LED technology. Of course this technology is a mix of other technologies, but quite a few of them are quite recent (as in max. decades old, not centuries).

    The article mentions the Telephone as a truly innovative invention. But doesn't that in its turn used microphone, speaker and signal transportation technology of that time?

    If the time frame for 'recent' is 'last half century' or so, I'd say there have been true inventions in, optical disk technology, various microprocessor advancements, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence hardware, gene manipulation, solar cell technology and various other fields. Too many to mention.
    If algorithms can be inventions as well, we have never been as innovative as we are now. Look at all the new search technologies, data-mining for targeted ads, again AI algorithms, mostly visible to the general public in computer games, audio and video compression codecs, speech recognition, synthesis and language translation... the list goes on and on...

  • by HyperQuantum ( 1032422 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:06AM (#42760359) Homepage

    Most people don't have time to be creative and invent new things. They spend 8 hours a day doing what someone else is telling them to do. All because you need money just to live.

  • by RoboJ1M ( 992925 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:11AM (#42760411)


    But I saw a programme on the BBC called geniuses of invention.
    It was about the geniuses that gave us the power station, and mighty minds they were, making incredible metal leaps off of the knowledge of the day.
    So even Watt and Faraday built on the work of others.

    Then it cuts to today, the Drax Power Station. []

    Where, in 2013, we BURN COAL TO DRIVE A STEAM ENGINE.

    I know I'm being facetious but it seems a shame that nearly 200 years later we haven't really moved on at all.
    It's probably down to the fact that we've needed a 100 years of work first in chemistry, physics and materials science before we can even consider moving beyond burning stuff.

    Our large power generation is still based off of Newton's world, not, erm, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Jordan, Pauli, Fermi, Schrodinger, Dirac, de Broglie and Bose's.

    We tried fission, that's not working out too well.
    The French have dug a big hole: []
    Soon they will shovel some fusion into it.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:13AM (#42760423) Homepage

    Some of the inventions to his name:
    - the Segway
    - the iBot wheelchair, capable of climbing stairs
    - a home dialysis machine
    - an insulin pump to help diabetics maintain a proper level
    - a low-power water purifier for use in developing countries

  • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:13AM (#42760425) Homepage

    The BBC is running a story about invention and innovation, suggesting that there have been no truly new inventions in a long time.

    Well, no. The story is about innovation, invention is just barely mentioned - and that in passing. The bulk of the story is about innovations, cross pollination between industries and fields, and how innovations build on previous iterations. All of this leading up to opinion (unsurprisingly, since it's an opinion piece, not a "story" per se) that industries must avoid becoming insular to avoid being left behind. (Though it appears by "industries", it appears he actually means "British corporations".)

    It leads to the question: what are the most recent things you can think of that have been actual, new inventions? Or has the high-tech revolution just been iterative innovation?"

    Well, setting aside the fact that you've mistaken a supporting statement for a thesis... Why does it matter? Arguably, iterative innovation is every bit as important as invention. Progress is as much about the measured steps as it is about giant leaps.

  • by JustAnotherIdiot ( 1980292 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:13AM (#42760431)
    The reason you don't "see" any inventors is because of the massive hoard of lawyers that would come after any public inventor.
    People who invent tend to keep it to themselves, because they'd never turn a profit after all the lawsuits.
  • by RadioElectric ( 1060098 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:14AM (#42760433)
    I think what is frequently seen as a "breakthrough invention" is actually judged from an instrumental perspective. Does the thing you've created either satisfy a recognised need (frequently these "inventions" are called "discoveries"), or does it create a new need (for example, that for instantaneous voice communication over long distances)? I think one of the driving factors is that in the rich parts of the developed western world there aren't many long-standing needs left to be met. New things have come along but they require more separate people and technologies involved to make them work. The ability to be continuously connected to an all-pervading mobile internet service is, I think, the latest of these invented "needs".
  • by Sir or Madman ( 2818071 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:26AM (#42760561)

    The wheel. Now that was a real invention!

    50,000 BCE - Tree dies and log rolls down hill to the bewilderment of the filthy cave-people nearby.

    35,000 BCE - A lunatic Neanderthal pushes a log down a hill to crush his enemies.

    3500 BCE - Someone eventually figures out that you can use a bunch of rolling logs side-by-side to move boulders.

    3000 BCE - A slave engineer from North Africa narrows the points of a rack of logs to attached a guide so they stay together whilst rolling.

    40 BCE - Some Roman stone mason makes a log out of stone and more disc-shaped.

    2 BCE - And finally, some brilliant -real- inventor pokes a hole in an old stone log and sticks a wooden log inside as an axle, probably so he can better lash someone to it for a good flogging.

    We just don't have -real- inventions anymore like the wheel!

  • by Iskender ( 1040286 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:32AM (#42760631)

    In recent years white LEDs have appeared in more and more places. After early red and even earlier weak blue LEDs, in quite a short time we went from green to blue to white indicator LEDs, and now the white ones are getting ever better.

    They're really a pretty miraculous technology: they're at least partially replacing everything from real candles to filament lamps to gas discharge lamps. They're about to unseat low pressure sodium lights as the most efficient streetlights, if they haven't already done so. Meanwhile they can still turn on and off faster than other lamps, and contain smaller amounts of toxic substances than most alternatives. They're a very science fictioney technology happening right here in real life.

  • by samkass ( 174571 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:34AM (#42760657) Homepage Journal

    Seriously, the processor powering the computer most are using to read the statement about the lack of invention is the result of dozens of fundamental discoveries and inventions over the last decade.

  • by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:41AM (#42760719)

    Many would-be inventors (and software developers) sit idly by or work on dull projects for large corporations because of companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Sony. It's financially dangerous to invent something or publish software as the hard part is not the engineering, it's the 'imaginary property' problem and all of the lawyers required. It's not worth the effort, as in the end you either get purchased by a large corporation or squashed by a large corporation. Most inventors aren't looking for imaginary property protection, they just want to make and sell a product.

  • by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 ) <> on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:44AM (#42760755) Journal

    Those little, academic inventions are what the author is calling "not real invension." He wants the good ol' days back when an inventor pulled back the tarp over the first powered airplane or horseless carriage and wowed everyone with something completely new. But he's not getting them back, because:

    1. Diminishing returns, part of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" effect: As time goes on, invention requires more advanced equipment, more investment, more education. The Wright Brothers could put together everything they needed to build their powered aircraft* in a bicycle shop from materials that could mostly be bought at a hardware store and the equivalent of maybe BSc-level education at most, with the equivalent of what today would be considered an upper-middle class hobby budget. These days you need supercomputers, research hospitals, giant particle colliders, a very solid PhD-level education and many millions of dollars as a bare minimum to push the boundaries.

    2. IP laws: They've turned the world of invention from a Wild West frontier to an Orwellian police state within the last century. Act surprised everyone.

    *I know, they were not really the first. []

  • by lcrocker ( 144720 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:46AM (#42760771) Homepage

    The stepwise refinement, collaboration, and remixing we see today is the way it has always been. Everything you ever learned about "Person X invented thing Y" is wrong. Such statements are made by history books to make a good story, and have no connection to reality. Edison was a smart and hard-working guy, but he didn't invent the light bulb or the phonograph out of thin air, nor did Bell the telephone, or Marconi the radio. They all played a role, but hardly a unique one.

  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:47AM (#42760789)

    BURN COAL TO DRIVE A STEAM ENGINE. ... nearly 200 years later we haven't really moved on at all.

    The problem is that heat-steam-rotation-electricity is the easiest, most efficient industrializable method of doing the necessary work in places where there aren't rivers that can be dammed.

    We've run up against physical and practical realities, and so have settled for "good enough". Every field eventually reaches a plateau; after a time of rapid advancement, boundaries are hit that can't be breached either at all or without expense that we aren't willing to bear.

    Commercial aviation is a great example: sure we *can* fly beyond Mach 1, the Concorde proved that. But where's the Concorde now? Why didn't it conquer the world? Because it's too expensive to push those molecules out of the way. The cruising speeds we hit 45 years ago are good enough.

  • by bws111 ( 1216812 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:52AM (#42760841)

    I am pretty sure that people were aware that hot things glow long before Edison came along (we had been working with iron for a few millenia by then). And I am pretty sure that people working with electricity were aware that a current produces heat. And I am pretty sure that putting a glass globe around hot things was pretty much standard practice. So what did Edison really do? He found, through experimentation, the right material that could sustain the heat without being destroyed in the process.

    So how is that process of experimenting and finding the right material a 'major invention', but experimenting and finding the right material to make a very thin but powerful battery 'nothing major'? Why are the thousands of 'minor' inventions that make up a cell phone 'not invention', but a lamp filament is?

  • by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:03AM (#42760913)

    Seriously, the processor powering the computer most are using to read the statement about the lack of invention is the result of dozens of fundamental discoveries and inventions over the last decade.

    No. No they're not. And that's what the author means. The transistor was a fundamental invention. Photo lithography for printing transistors was a fairly fundamental improvement on the transistor. Now I agree that there are lots of things needed to continue shrinking circuits. Dual patterning, tri-gate, materials improvements. And there are processor design improvements as well, some of them kinda fancy. But this is ALL incremental improvement on the integrated circuit which is over 40 years old now.

    We had bulletin boards on 8-bit processors using 1200 baud modems in the 1980s. Slashdot is nothing more than a fancy HTML BBS. Where is the "fundamental" change?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:25AM (#42761193)

    1. I can realize where you're coming from, but the average person can get hardware people couldn't have dreamed of even 20 years ago. You can go out and if you have the right knowledge & drive build a pretty hefty supercomputer on a car budget. CNC, Milling & Prototyping equipment is expensive, but within reach of the general person. Advanced CAD design software (mechanical, physics, etc) only costs in the neighborhood of $2k - $5k. If anything I think laws/regulations are the bigger threat to innovation. You can buy all of the equipment to build your experimental rocket engine design, but try buying the fuel to put in it or goodness forbid do a test firing and you could very well have a half dozen three letter agencies descending on you. Try to buy the medical equipment & supplies to test out your idea of a new skin graft tech idea and you'll run into dozens of restrictions on who can purchase those items, alongside of having MORE three letter agencies descend on you. You're probably not going to redefine particle physics in your garage, but there are plenty of more areas where private inventors can contribute to society. The 3D printer scene is a pretty good example, I think it has advanced more in the last 5 years than it has in the last 25 due to home inventors & innovators. Satellite launching had remained pretty static and extremely costly for decades, now thanks to private (though extremely rich) individuals the prices are dropping drastically. Though on that front it is not a technical innovation but an innovation in how it is done.

    2. I completely agree with you on this.

  • by jackbird ( 721605 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @12:23PM (#42761873)

    Memristors, Graphene, Carbon Nanotubes, nanoscale 3D printing, DNA sequencing, and many, many more...

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @01:21PM (#42762427) Homepage

    The transistor was a fundamental invention.

    No, the transistor was just an incremental improvement of the VCCS/amplifier, which before was implemented as a vacuum tube. It took many incremental improvements on top of that first transistor before it got so much better than the vacuum tube that you could call it fundamentally superior to the old technology. But it was still an implementation of the same fundamental concept.

    I mean if you're not going to accept using interference to allow the etching of features on a chip smaller than the wavelength of light used to etch them because it's just "photo lithography", or the switch from plasma etching to additive patterning to allow copper interconnect because it's just "materials improvements", or any of the other improvements in manufacturing regardless of how much invention was involved because it's all just "integrated circuits", then I'm sure as hell not going to give you your "voltage-controlled current source" just because you're aware of it being a big deal.

    But I think your post really does reveal why we have this perception. People judge invention based on *function*, not the innovation that went into making it work. A turbo-charger is just a thing that makes your car work slightly better. It's still just a car. My computer is 20,000 times faster than the one I had 20 years ago, and of course it took ridiculous amounts of completely new technology to make it, but it's still just a computer (just like pre-transistor computers were computers, btw).

    Which I guess is fair. It's just a weird tack to take when something like a cell phone is considered an invention even though it was really just the coordinated application of well-established technology, while seemingly "incremental" improvements in the power of that cell phone are due to fundamental improvements in the underlying technology.

    So I guess that's it -- the reason there's less "invention" today is because it's harder to come up with new stuff to do. We already have machines that move us around rapidly on the ground or in the air. We already have machines that do math and send communications globally. We have machines that heat and cool the air. We have machines that do a crazy amount of different "things", and the only way to "invent" is to invent a new "thing".

  • by Darth Snowshoe ( 1434515 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @01:37PM (#42762629)

    This is pretty squarely in "no true Scotsman" territory.

The next person to mention spaghetti stacks to me is going to have his head knocked off. -- Bill Conrad