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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 @10:03AM (#42760337)

    As one of the inventors out there.... Yes we are real and we are definitely in the game. There are earth shattering new inventions all the time. The problem for the most part is a seriously busted patent system. It tends to keep us off of the system you are looking at. Just as a tease. Suppose I were to invent a device that made useful energy a different way. This invention I will give you from a yesterday's Slashdot post. OK here it is! Take the magnetic transistor technology and using a forward ratio typical of optical and electronic transistors of 1000:1 blast this microcoating onto a permanent magnet surface. Now I could turn on and off the magnet like a light switch with only 1/1000th of the magnetic field I currently find in the magnet.
    Now I make the poles of a motor this way. Now I switch on and off my poles. Now I get a COP of 1000 out of a motor. Not bad for one day reading Slashdot eh? This invention application surely aught to go down in history as one of the top ones of all time. Given away on Slashdot because of our awful screwed up Patent system.
    I expect hecklers and the like. Game over guys this one will work and is proved technology! You can argue all day long about where the energy comes from but it will work. --- Just a hint look for Maxwell's aether. (Oops I mean the Higgs field! - Just a renaming of Maxwell aether) If I haven't given you a hint as to the size of inventors now days don't run around with your eyes wide shut.

  • by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:06AM (#42760363)

    Yeah what defines an invention in the eyes of some of the media differs considerably from invention really is - a slow, incremental process of discovery. When these guys think of an inventor they see Doc Brown, not teams of researchers, scientists, and engineers working for decades. Battery life is another one, it has been increasing steadily year on year, but because manufacturers use these advances to put smaller and slimmer batteries into phones, some people think batteries haven't improved at all, or have somehow gotten worse.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:15AM (#42760439)

    IMHO, real invention is like a good joke - if a punchline doesn't surprise you, the joke sucks. Invention has to contain a surprise, or else it doesn't bring any value to the humanity and patenting it is an act of robbery.

  • Absurd. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:37AM (#42760673)

    I'd say progress comes in waves. Someone invents something revolutionary and then others spend decades, if not centuries, improving that technology and exploiting it to its fullest extent. That said, technology is growing increasingly complex which means that it requires the involvement of multiple people. An individual might have an ambiguous vision like a flying car, but the odds of that person along inventing the technology that would make it work is slim.

    I do think it's outrageously idiotic to suggest that we are not in a golden age of invention. The author seems to be arguing that there's no invention because we haven't been hit with big, flashy bits of technology. Progress is far more subtle than that. It's iterative and often has a long incubation period.

    Much of it isn't even noteworthy on it's own, but enables a whole host of new technologies. Look at something as mundane as manufacturing processes. If you gave an engineer in 1980 the complete schematics to a modern smartphone they wouldn't be able to build the thing. They haven't had the advances in machining and material sciences to enable that technology.

    Every few years some dolt writes an editorial complaining about how there's no real innovation because cars still require wheels or computers look kind of like typewriters. The guy who's written this particular editorial is probably being self-serving given that he represents some consultancy. But generally I think the attitude is incredibly self-centered. It's the idea that because the world hasn't met *MY* ridiculous standards there is no innovation. Because I haven't been observant enough or alive long enough to notice the fundamental impact on humanity nothing's changed.

  • by emj ( 15659 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:12AM (#42761009) Journal

    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?

    We have been able to do that with radio for a long time as well, with your reasoning there is not "fundamental" difference there either. BBS:es and Slashdot are not the same at all, they are different in many social and technical aspects.

  • by Chirs ( 87576 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:43AM (#42761437)

    I live in the Canadian prairies, and it turns out that there is an interesting side effect of the higher efficiency of the LED bulbs....they don't put out *enough* heat.

    Last year the weather conditions were just right and we had a kind of sticky blowing snow that stuck to a bunch of the traffic lights. With the old bulbs the heat would have been enough to "self-clear", but for the LED ones they had to send out crews to clean off the snow.

  • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @12:27PM (#42761923)

    OMG, we haven't had a once-a-millenium invention in the last fifty years!

    The invention of the transistor was a paradigm shift (although I doubt anyone realized it at the time). Those don't happen all the time, nor do they usually happen all at once. First we had vacuum tubes, then crappy transistors, then not so crappy transistors, then ICs, then decent ICs... THEN they started to really change the world.

    All those other things you mentioned are real, genuine inventions. Just because you can't look back on them in hindsight and label them "fundamental" doesn't change that.

  • by Miamicanes ( 730264 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @03:25PM (#42764077)

    In terms of paradigm shifts, I'd say one of the more fundamental was the humble 555 IC. You can buy brand new products today that use more or less the exact same die design that was laid out by hand 40 years ago. All that's really changed is that it now comes in tiny SMD packaging with more or less the same silicon inside as always.

    The 555 was fundamental in ways that the 74xx chips, and even FPGAs, aren't. 7400-series chips formed the foundation of modern computers, but they gradually (for commercial purposes, at least) evolved and consolidated into PALs, which evolved into CPLDs, which evolved into FPGAs.

    The 555 was literally an overnight seismic shift in circuit design that's endured almost unchanged for nearly half a century -- it was useful the day it came out, and remains useful today. In contrast, 7400 logic chips were a vital part of a long chain of evolution that begin with chips that were mostly useless on their own until you combined them like electronic lego bricks, and continued their steady evolution (more or less faithfully demonstrating Moore's Law) up to the present.

    The generic Op-amp was another. Over the years, we've refined them and made them cheaper, but to a large extent an op-amp is still an op-amp. And from op-amps, we got chips like the LM386 -- the infamous single-chip .5w amplifier that was pretty much a universal component in cheap consumer electronics gear until class D amplifiers with integrated simple DSP capabilities and I2C volume/effects control arrived like a tsunami in the early 2000s. (For anyone under ~40 or so, anything our parents called a "transistor radio" when we were kids was almost always a "LM386 radio").

I go on working for the same reason a hen goes on laying eggs. -- H.L. Mencken