April 6, 2005: Perspective
magic of invention
By Nathan P. Myhrvold *83
Nathan P. Myhrvold *83, former chief technology officer at Microsoft and founder of Intellectual Ventures, a company that nurtures invention, received the 2005 James Madison Medal on Alumni Day, Feb. 26. This essay is adapted from the lecture he gave that day in Richardson Auditorium.
Invention is the origin of all technology: Everything new started as a spark in someone’s head. Without that breakthrough idea — without knowing how something can be done — you are at a fundamental disadvantage. After you know something, it often seems obvious; you say, “God, why didn’t I think of that?” After you have the invention, you can apply lots of cleverness to making something work, but up front you need to have that invention. But, ironically, the world does not focus much effort on invention. In fact, invention is a sideline or a hobby for virtually everyone who practices it.
Academic research is wonderful, but academics aren’t supposed to invent — they’re supposed to learn new things about the world; they’re supposed to expand mankind’s knowledge. You can be a fantastic researcher without ever inventing something. There are great academics who invent, but they do it on the side. The same thing, ironically, is true of engineers. Most engineers are paid to build something. If you said, “Hey, you can build your product without actually doing a new invention,” most engineering managers would say, “Great! There is going to be no risk. I hate when we have to solve a problem no one has solved before!” So while engineers can be great inventors, very few people are motivated to do it full time.
The world doesn’t support invention very well. There is a systematic set of constraints: What is the next product version? What suits my research? What can I get my graduate student to do? Most of all: What can I get funded for? The great debate in design is whether form follows function. But in much of life, form follows funding. If you can’t get funded to invent, if people won’t take a chance, how are you going to get there? As a result, a huge amount of invention is done sub rosa — some of it by academics who really have a grant to do something else. Very few companies support really radical things — because if it is really radical, almost by definition it is not somebody’s business to do up front.
The world is focused very much on what you do after you have the idea. If you go to a venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif., and say, “You know, I am sure I am going to have a good idea!” the meeting ends right there. I like to think that if you really focus on invention we could have a whole lot more, and a whole lot better.
But what are the inspirations for invention? Where does invention come from? One of the most powerful ideas is to take inspiration from the natural world — to see something that nature has invented and use that as an inspiration directly for human invention. It is a great idea — but it rarely happens. There is one terrific example: Velcro. In 1948, Swiss biologist George de Mestral got some cockleburs stuck in his sock. Many of us have had that happen. But George was a little more curious than most of us about how these cockleburs stuck to his socks. He looked at one under a microscope, and saw lots and lots of little hooks. The hooks engage the fibers; originally, they evolved to engage fibers in an animal’s hide to catch a ride. So de Mestral said, “I can make hooks!” and came up with the idea of Velcro.
The other classic example is flying. Mankind always has been fascinated with the graceful way birds soar. Early in the history of aviation, birds provided direct, natural inspiration. The primary proponent was the German inventor Otto Lilienthal, who built wonderful, birdlike gliders in Germany. But it turns out that acting like a bird isn’t a good way to make a glider, and Otto flew and flew until he crashed. In 1894, a bicycle mechanic, Wilbur Wright, read about this, and he and his brother set out deliberately to invent the airplane. They took a very different approach. They weren’t interested in birds at all — they built the first practical wind tunnel. It was by taking an approach that was utterly unlike a bird that they had some success.
The interesting thing is how deliberate the Wrights were. In 1899, they wrote to the Smithsonian Institution — that was back when the Smithsonian took requests — and said, “We would like all of the literature you have on human or artificial flight.” Someone at the Smithsonian boxed up all these papers and sent them off. And so Orville and Wilbur Wright said, “OK, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to fly.” It wasn’t based on birds, but on a systematic approach of saying, “Damn it; there has got to be a way to achieve this!” It took them four years. I think that it is really remarkable when you consider that after four years of seriously working at it — on something that people had speculated about since Leonardo da Vinci’s time — these guys invented the airplane.
Most great inventions actually come out of something like the Wrights’ approach. Someone gets a crazy idea and, of course, up front it is ludicrous. The more important the idea, the more ludicrous it has to be when you set out. I used to say at Microsoft Research that we wanted to hire researchers who were “narrowly insane”: insane, because they believed they could solve a problem no one else in the world could solve; narrowly, because you wanted them to be pretty sensible in other ways. This kind of dedicated approach to invention is something I think the world needs to support a lot more.
There is another big theory of invention: the “happy accident” theory, in which someone can come up with an interesting observation through a bit of serendipity. Roy Plunkett, who invented Teflon, had been doing an experiment that involved putting some fluorine gas and other things into a tank. He opened the stop cap to the tank, and nothing came out. The tank was heavy, he shook it, and eventually he took a hacksaw and sawed it apart, and discovered that there was this waxy white substance in it. It is a classic example of serendipity. It is also a classic example of how not to manage invention. Immediately after this, Plunkett was transferred and was never allowed to work on Teflon again at DuPont.
Happy accidents like Teflon do occur. But very few great inventions are accidental — and even in those that are, the great thing isn’t the accident itself. A whole lot of people could have made Roy Plunkett’s discovery and just thrown the whole thing out. The really great inventions that come from serendipity are the accidents waiting to happen. There is a saying: Luck favors the prepared mind. First you have to notice this thing, and then you have to be prepared to develop it. And you have to have the right support.
From a technological perspective, this is the ideal time to be an inventor. We have greater connectivity than we have ever had before, greater access to information and knowledge. The world is a much smaller place now that the Internet can allow us to connect with each other. That’s a terrific stimulus. And the pace of invention has never been faster.
All of these things lead me to believe that the 21st century is going to be an era of incredible and dynamic invention. It’s also a time, frankly, when we have to do it. At the turn of the last century, about half of our workforce was on the farm. By the 1960s it had dwindled to about 6 percent, and today, it’s less than 3 percent. American farms are the most efficient in the world, but agriculture as a major part of the workforce has come and gone. So has manufacturing: It was just getting going in 1900 and peaked at about a third of the economy in the 1950s; today it is about 10 percent. Most companies in America now do a lot of the design, but a huge amount of what they do is built overseas. If we don’t learn to invent, if we don’t foster invention and innovation, it is not clear what we are going to do for a living.
Invention is the source of it all, yet it is strangely neglected. Enough of it happens, and happens randomly, that it keeps us busy. But if you focus on fostering it, it can really be done deliberately. There are people who disagree with this. Maybe you can’t always set out and succeed like the Wright brothers did. After all, there probably were a lot of guys in 1899 who set out to invent something — but we only celebrate the people who got there.
But you sure can kill invention. Creativity absolutely can be strangled. It can be squelched; it can be underfunded. I think it is incumbent upon us to continue to push, in education and in business, to support it. The economies of the 21st century are going to be driven by the magic of invention.