Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?

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?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Are There Any Real Inventors Left?

Comments Filter:
  • Sham-Wow (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:47AM (#42760203)


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

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

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

              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

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by Miamicanes ( 730264 )

                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 purpo

            • 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 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. []

          • I think we've had our share of big breakthroughs...

            smart phone
            Social Media
            Autonomous car
            speech recognition (w/ 99%+ accuracy)
            automatic language translation


          • by uradu ( 10768 )

            To put it another way, as time goes on we're running out of simple ways of arranging magnets in novel configurations to create some new machines never before seen, or variations on this metaphor. To create truly new things requires orders of magnitude more work and knowledge.Look at battery technology, where the most groundbreaking improvement of the last century has been the Li-Ion battery, and that's no panacea either. Or how about the PEM fuel cell, potentially the holy grail of electric power generation

        • I agree. I think part of the problem is the lack of exposition for the sake of inspiring the public. Most of the current expositions are marketing fairs that only show off products that investors hope will have mass appeal and not necessarily ground breaking inventions. Since truly ground breaking or inspirational inventions may not do well at your local electronic retailer, this means most of the public's attention is focused solely on consumer items.

          The world's fair use to played a role during the beginn

        • most of those inventions are based heavily on work that has gone before them.

          You could say the discovery of DNA is a breakthrough invention, but I'd say it was simply made at the right time - when some other processes and technologies were improved to the point where it became possible.

          Think about the greatest revolution in our entire history. One person thought to squirt a bit of cold water into a chamber full of steam to create a vacuum that could "pull" a beam into it, allowing the other end of the beam

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by RoboJ1M ( 992925 )


        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 mov

        • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

          Not working out to well?
          That fission seems to be powering my computer just fine. What part of it is not working out?

          If you want to say there have been problems, that is true, but for the most part it works out. Coal mining kills far more. Not to even mention the toxic pools the coal plants have to store their waste. That stuff stays toxic forever by the way.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by RoboJ1M ( 992925 )

            You misunderstand, my bad.

            By not doing too well I mean:

            1) We're still burning fossil fuels. Period. Not cracking atoms and persuing renewables.
            2) Decades of stagnation in development and deployment
            3) Plagued by NIMBYs and doom mongers.

            Not to mention the climate sceptics saying coal's fine and the enviromentalits demanding we all run off of a few wind mills and... coal until we build more wind mills?? Eh?

            Bunch of idiots.
            Bulldoze the lot, build nuke plants until fusion is ready.
            It's the only way to be sure.


        • Don't forget - solar and wind power are moving up. Wind generates 10% or more of the electricity in five US states now (, and the amount of power being generated by wind worldwide grew by 20% from 2010 to 2011 ( Solar power usage is also growing quickly, with world solar production increasing by 75% from 2010 to 2011. (And the photoelectric effect is not from 'Newton's World'.) Granted, they

          • by RoboJ1M ( 992925 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @02:42PM (#42763489)

            Indeed, it's so very exciting to watch.

            I love Desertec's idea of concentrating solar plants in the deserts of north africa with HVDC lines supplying europe.
            Wouldn't it be wonderful to see money flood into Africa which doesn't involve digging shiny rocks out the ground.
            They have a fantastic statistic of how much desert solar would be required to run europe. It looks like a postage stamp on the map!

        • 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 Zelos ( 1050172 )

          They're actually converting Drax to burn wood instead of coal. We're going backwards!


      • 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".
        • 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.

          I was thinking exactly the same thing. The wheel? That's an invention. The light-bulb? That's an invention. Spray-cheese? The Snuggie? Maybe not so much.

          Also, as others have mentioned, invention is iterative. Back in the caveman days, when the number of steps from raw-material to finished product was very low (ie, start with rock, make it round, now you have a wheel), the steps looked very large. Today, because things are so technical and rely on so many steps, the last "inventive" step of combining exis

      • by justthinkit ( 954982 ) <> on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:40AM (#42760703) Homepage Journal
        Fermat's Last Theorem, cracked by a guy working in his attic for 7 years [].

        And yes, he did innovate, a la Newton, along the way.

    • True that. Even the incandescent light bulb was an idea that had been floating around for some time; Edison's credit was making a practical version, mainly through brute force trial and error with a team of assistants.

  • by ranulf ( 182665 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:51AM (#42760231)

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of inventions are really just the next logical step from current systems, and especially when you have a lot of independent groups working in similar areas, the chance of inventing something truly unique is quite low. One of the problems with the patent system, I think, is that it affords the first "inventor" an enormous advantage over everyone else who might also come up with the same idea independently.

    I'm not saying there aren't often genuine inventions and patent worthy things, but a lot of stuff that is just an iteration beyond what went before isn't really an invention...

    • I think part of the problem is also the lack of low hanging fruit. After the explosion of the industrial revolution someone working in their garage/shed could do things like build an airplane. We reached a point were you needed unobtainiom to take things further. In some ways that has started to swing back. Look at what the Maker movement has been doing with easy to get and use chips. Yes, there have been thousands of "Oooo look at my blinky lights." But there have also been things like the Maker-Bot and th

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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.

      • In the context of this, I'd say the internet was a great invention. Look at how much it surprised a real powerhouse in the domain, Microsoft. No way would I have predicted in 1990 how ubiquitous the online experience would become.

  • 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?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Soluzar ( 1957050 )
      Good points, but among the many good reasons that Bell didn't invent the telephone in ancient greece was that he wasn't born yet. *rimshot*
    • No but technically the Steam Engine, Robot & Automatic Doors were invented by Hero in 300BC. But I agree the author must have been researching with his/her eyes closed.
      • Hero did not "technically" invent the steam engine. He made a steam powered novelty yes, and is credited with making the first steam engine of any kind, but his aeropile still had a long way to go before becoming a device that could power industry.

    • 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?

      Not to mention, Sasha Grey wasn't around back then for Bell to copy the 'mercury as a variable resistor' idea from by bribing a patent clerk. []

      Even the idea of communicating via wire was an iteration on the Telegraph system. It was obvious, we knew you could play tones down the wires, it was only a matter of time before you could transmit voice.

      Oh, sure, fall back to Edison and his Light-bulb then? Incandescent light bulbs were in the European patent office 2 years before Edison's. The prior art used

    • There are very few, if any, human achievements that come totally by themselves, with no reliance on what came before them. Everything is iterative. Some things may be bigger leaps than others but it is all still built on earlier work, it is all derivative to an extent. I think Newton's statement to Hooke is apt "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

      You hear shit like this from whiny people all the time with regards to video games ans so on. How there's nothing "new" anymore,

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:51AM (#42760239)

    Clearly they invented the portable music device, the tablet computer, the cellular phone and the personal computer. No other company has done so much to enrich our lives. In about 3 years time we'll see that they will have invented the television too.

  • The patent trolls see to that.

  • Sensational indeed (Score:5, Informative)

    by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:53AM (#42760247) Homepage

    "particularly with the media's appetite for sensational stories"

    What, like claiming there are no new inventions to get the digerati all a-twitter and drive traffic to your site? Like that, you mean?

    I have asthma. Over the past 35 years I have witnessed the slow and steady destruction of this affliction. I started with drugs that were expensive and did little or nothing to actually steady my attacks. Today I use something called Singulair which I take once a day and essentially makes my asthma disappear. It also mutes down all of my allergies, I can pet cats without any side effects now.

    According to the BBC, this is not an invention. That's because we had drugs before, and we have other ones today. Clearly this is not *really* any sort of progress, right? The fact that my life, and millions of others, have been utterly transformed is just an illusion!

    • 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 kcurtis ( 311610 )

      Then there is this: "the iPhone was not a new invention - it was just a much better telephone than any we'd seen before." Hogwash. Sure, we call it a telephone, but it is as different as shouting is from a landline, and it uses a crap-ton of new materials, software, imaging and wireless innovations - many of which did not exist 15 years ago.

  • A moon dust rover :)

    how about using the dust on the moon as rocket fuel? imagine this... blast dust downward underneath the rover, and kick up more dust. use the dust you kick-up as more rocket fuel.

    • by awptic ( 211411 )

      i mean to say better...

      blast dust downward and you'll get dust to kick up like throwing sand at sand. then have it caught in your typhoon and blast some backwards to move forward too.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      This is it exactly. One of the recent (and yes, hyped) inventions that sprang to mind was the Segway. Was it a really novel combination of a number of advanced technologies (batteries, gyros, sensors, etc.)? Yes, to me that qualifies as the very definition of invention; taking advanced discoveries and combining them in a unique way. Did it change many lives? Probably not (unless you are in the guided tour business.) The simple fact is that we in the developed world have it pretty damn good. We don't

  • Yes. Quit expecting to see real inventions among heavily-marketed consumer products, though.

  • While I have no real facts to back this up, I would think that the innovative process requires new materials to create new ideas. Through the ages we learned and invented as we discovered new metals and other materials. I am betting that when / if we do discover some new materials in significant quantities that are useful we'll come up with new uses for them.

    So when someone comes out with transparent steel or something I'll be able to invent some cool stuff.

    I also feel like science fiction movies have sort

  • 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 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 sl4shd0rk ( 755837 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:15AM (#42760443)

    People like this are the modern day inventors.

    [0] - []
    [1] - []
    [2] - []

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Real" invention: Graham Bell and the Telephone. Never mind the ~30 years of inventions that came before it, including the one where the term Telephone even comes from (Reis anyone?). Stupid.

    And then they speak of Apple and the Iphone because, supposedly, everyone believes that was some sort of great invention and not merely a very well executed idea that had already existed before.

    Weak and sad.

  • Yes.

    Remember the book War of the Worlds? In it, what ultimately kept the aliens at bay were the same diseases that plague us.

    It turns out that we needed predators, new adventures, challenges, struggles and discomforts to stay motivated.

    Instead, we have Big Macs and Netflix, and we keep shuffling the same technologies around and trying to build an economy on selling the result to each other and then taxing it...

  • There is more and more patents every year, so there should be many new inventions no ?
  • I'm pretty sure the ability to create a real, physical object based on a series of 1s and 0s in a file is worthy of being called an invention. Sure, you could consider it an "improvement" on the printing press, but things like the MakerBot are really something unique on their own.
    • And just after I post this, Slashdot gets a story about a mechanical prosthetic hand made for a 5 year old child from a 3D printer. Yup.
  • There have been some massive breakthroughs in the medical field in the last few years and most recently, a possible cure for AIDS [] and cancer [].
  • 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

  • Usually when it is said "no new inventions" they are comparing against the flurry of activity from circa 1850-1950, and then I point out how the commercial worldwide Internet (early 1990's) and affordable cell phones (mid 1990's) fundamentally changed life. Before the 1990's cell phone, women did not go out alone at night. But this BBC article defines "recent" as "21st century" and focuses on everyone's favorite non-invention whipping boy, the iPhone.

    Well, 2001-2010, has been called the "lost decade" for

  • ... this argument has been with us for at least a century, as well.
  • the problem is the lack of NEW fields where you can land up having your name used for the Units of that field. That and getting into a new ar3ea (even if its related to an existing one) is a good way to be sued/criminally charged/shot by somebody.

  • by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:35AM (#42760661) Homepage Journal
    Unless you are an anonymous employee on a fixed salary of a big corporation that takes the merit and profit for your inventions (where don't worth it), is just too risky to even try.
  • 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 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.

  • Would be after CERN or Fermilab make a history altering discovery ..
  • by TheSkepticalOptimist ( 898384 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:53AM (#42760845)

    Saying there are no real investors just speaks to how the BBC has become nothing more then a sensational tabloid service rather then anything to do with news. And does speak to the current state of our society in general for valuing what the BBC has to "report".

    No, you are not going to see the world's next big invention on the Dragon's Den (or Shark Tank for you Americans). Someone is not going to walk up to the panel with a solution for the world's energy crisis having worked on the problem in their garage for a couple of years. Also inventions are not just stuff you get on a cellphone or tablet.

    Where invention is happening is in laboratories with subject matter that would make the average BBC employee's head explode with its complexity and impact on society. Maybe rather then writing up some drivel about the lack of innovation and invention in the world, tour any post-graduate lab at a university for an hour.

    I would agree with one sentiment from the BBC article, there are few innovations that are readily digestible by the average human. For instance discovering the Higgs Boson particle is barely understandable by the average person. While this was a huge win in the field of physics, most people could barely understand what actually happened and few news sites could even report properly the impact it has.

    So, just because the iPhone has not introduced anything new for the last few years doesn't mean invention is dead, it just proves that news reporting is a dead art.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:17AM (#42761071)

    1) There are always diminishing returns on technology. The easy stuff gets discovered and developed first.

    2) Invention always starts as an individual with an idea. Current employee contract law guarantees that benefits of a new invention go to corporate entities instead of the individual, thus short-circuiting the reward process for invention at the start.

    3) Patent trolls can successfully shake down real inventors via litigation. Larger corporations can shrug this off. Individuals and small businesses can't.

    You want invention? Purge the parasites and parasitic elements from the system (i.e. patent laws favoring corporations and patent trolls). At that point, talented individuals can start profitably inventing again.

  • by dlenmn ( 145080 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @12:06PM (#42761687)

    There are a lot of post about how past "inventions" were really just minor iterations too, so the author's claim doesn't stand up. However, I think the author does have a point; try the recognition test.

    If an average american from 1910 were suddenly transported to 1960, things would be unrecognizable -- there were so many truly groundbreaking changes. Home electric power, radio, television, refrigerators (and the supermarkets and foods they allowed), automobiles, antibiotics, etc. had all gone from being unknowns to being commonplace in the intervening period. (They may have existed in 1910, but they weren't developed to the point of commercialization.)

    In comparison, someone suddenly transported from 1960 to 2010 would recognize almost all parts of daily life. Wake up, flip on the lights, make some breakfast using ingredients from the fridge, drive to work, listen to the radio on the drive, return home, and watch TV. Few things would be truly new. Even most of the new things wouldn't be unrecognizable. Cell phones are just two-way radios; those existed in 1960. People in 1960 knew computers were going to be a big deal, etc. Heck, if I were transported from 1960 to 2010, I'd be disappointed. Where are the flying cars and other Jetson innovations? (Yes, The Jetsons aired in 1962; just add two years to everything if you must.) The internet and the computers we access it through are the only really big change to daily life that I can think of. That's significant, but not as significant as the 1910->1960 changes.

  • by pscottdv ( 676889 ) on Friday February 01, 2013 @01:39PM (#42762651)

    This article is a poor, sensationalistic rewrite of a much more thoughtful one: []

    A sad day for the BBC.

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.