Innovation is all the rage. It will drive our economy, solve our problems, ease the burdens of everyday life, and make America great again. The past is forgotten and the present is taken for granted, but the the future will be bright thanks to Innovation.
The great ideas that comprise Innovation seem to arise from unexpected places and strange combinations. Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance polymath, had both the restless mind of a scientist and the trained eye of an artist. He spent countless hours studying the muscles of the human body and filled volumes with his detailed anatomical sketches. His obsession with the muscles of the face informed the most famous smile ever painted. Although few of his many brilliant engineering projects were ever completed, he at least rendered them in beautiful drawings worthy of framing. History is not clear on the subject, but it is easy to imagine that the restless, creative mind of Leonardo was annoyed by the mundane details of building and testing his devices.
Many centuries before Leonardo, another Italian luminary by the name of Archimedes was annoyed that his bathtub always overflowed onto the floor when he climbed in. As legend has it, he was the first to give any serious thought to why that might be. Rather than just start with less water and be done with it, he began thinking about how this annoyance could be used to measure the volume of any irregular object. In retrospect, this was a brilliant Innovation. The fact that he ran through the streets naked and dripping wet proclaiming his great idea was not so brilliant, and undoubtedly annoyed his neighbors.
More recently, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer had just walked by an active radar device when he was annoyed to find that the candy bar he carried in his shirt pocket had melted. Although he could have sealed his legacy by inventing the pocket protector, he chose instead to experiment with other food items, notably some unpopped kernels of corn. This led to a 6-foot-tall, 750 lb. device that cost around $2500 and found limited use in restaurants. Twenty years of research and development eventually produced the modern microwave oven, putting an end to the annoying wait for food to cook.
Anyone whose dog has run around in an open field knows firsthand how annoying it is to have to pick out all the burrs from their fur. Many dogs, similarly annoyed, will try to help by licking at them, often resulting in a burr stuck in the throat. This will lead to a trip to the vet, culminating in an annoyingly expensive surgical procedure. Realizing that there are times when sticking things together is good, Swiss engineer George de Mestral took the doggie burr problem to the bank with the invention of Velcro. In the meantime, some folks where I live put elaborate netting contraptions on their dog’s head to keep out those annoying burrs.
Hybrid thinking may have been natural for the great Leonardo, but oftentimes the rest of us mortals require a little stimulus to get the Innovative juices flowing. Perhaps that is the true benefit of annoyance; it provides a healthy bolus of anger and frustration along with just enough adrenaline to awaken our inner McGyver. The result can be an Innovative solution that wipes out those pesky annoyances.
Unless you’re the dog.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.
Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.