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Peering inside Invention

That fits with the final trend-toward a new appreciation of how the cognitive process of invention actually works. Invention is so steeped in the myth of accidental discovery that one might conclude it’s like playing the lottery. For example, there is the tale of Percy Spencer, the researcher at Waltham, MA-based Raytheon who reportedly noticed that a radar tube in his lab melted the candy bar in his pocket-resulting in the microwave oven. Chance can indeed be a key element of invention. But from their studies, Myhrvold and others have come to realize that truly “accidental” inventions are rare and are usually exaggerated in hindsight-sometimes to justify why researchers deviated from what they were supposed to be doing. Most of these stories leave out the fact that these researchers were keenly observant and were deliberately trying to invent new things all the time.

In fact, invention is now being recognized as a more focused, deliberate process, enacted by people who are especially good at finding new problems and who often work and think differently from typical researchers and technicians. Sarcos Research of Salt Lake City is a case in point. The 50-employee invention shop, which CEO Stephen Jacobsen calls a “skunk works for hire,” develops prototypes and licenses them to firms such as Merck, Pfizer, Disney, Sony, Lucent, and the Palo Alto Research Center.

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