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Reinventing Invention

From the editor in chief

The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed that “the greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of the method of invention.” Whitehead was talking about the systematic, scientific method that led to great research universities, individual inventors such as Thomas Edison, and the major industrial research-and-development labs that have dominated patenting for decades.

Is the beginning of the 21st century witnessing the invention of a new method of invention?

If the people central to this special issue are right, it is. So we set out to explore their ideas-as well as some of the fruits of invention today. The stage is set in “Sparking the Fire of Invention,” by contributing writer Evan I. Schwartz. Schwartz, whose book Juice: The Creative Fuel Driving Today’s World-Class Inventors is due out this fall, helped conceive this issue. He lays out the argument that we’re entering a new age, shining the spotlight on former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold and his new enterprise Invention Science, which is assembling technologists from around the world and turning them loose against his former employer and other corporations.

Myhrvold’s ideas are corroborated by legendary inventor Ray Kurzweil, who details his own perspective on invention today in “Kurzweil’s Rules of Invention.” Chiming in from another perspective is venture capitalist Howard Anderson, who says big corporations are almost incapable of making meaningful inventions (“Why Big Companies Can’t Invent”). Rounding out the package are profiles of inventors who epitomize the current spirit of technical creativity. We look at Apple Computer cofounder Steve Wozniak and his startup, Wheels of Zeus; the competition to produce a revolution in audio between prolific inventor Elwood “Woody” Norris and young psychoacoustics expert Joseph Pompei; and Jian Wang of Microsoft’s Beijing lab, who led the invention of a pen that captures whatever you write in digital form. And for an inspiring story of a 51-year-old inventor and mother of five, check out Joe Chung’s column.

Such a focus on invention may seem anachronistic. After all, the prevailing dogma of the last several decades has been that the real value to business and society comes from the bigger, more important process called innovation. Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, in this very magazine, once wrote an article entitled “Invention Is a Flower, Innovation Is a Weed” (TR November/December 1999)-pointing out the difference between merely creating a great new thing and doing the development, manufacturing, and marketing necessary for it to have a real impact. Or just consult columnist Michael Schrage. There’s a reason, Schrage writes, that “Technology Review is MIT’s Magazine of Innovation-not Invention.”

To me, invention is a subset of innovation-just as relief pitching is a subset of baseball, and quality control is a subset of manufacturing. But think of the gains that come from focusing on and improving such subsets! It’s the difference between, say, the Yankees and the Red Sox (of old), between Toyota and Detroit (perhaps of old). That’s why I am intrigued by Myhrvold and others who are challenging prevailing views of invention. I can’t wait to learn what happens.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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