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Much Ado about Invention

We have no shortage of good inventions. What we need are better ways to bring them to customers.

Samuel F. B. Morse didn’t invent the telegraph. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone. Thomas Edison invented neither the light bulb nor the movie camera. Guglielmo Marconi most assuredly didn’t invent radio. Neither Philo Farnsworth nor Vladimir Zworykin invented television. The integrated circuit’s provenance remains in simmering dispute between Jack Kilby fans and Robert Noyce supporters. As for the Internet and its ubiquitous browser, let’s just say that-as with these other technological “breakthroughs”-“publicity,” “priority,” and “patent” are often mutually exclusive.

When it comes to invention, Henry Ford-who, of course, invented neither the automobile nor the mass-production line-was right: history is indeed bunk. The wrenched context and sheer dishonesty of most sagas of “heroic” inventors and their profitable progeny brings to mind science historian Otto Neugebauer’s astutely cynical observation that “The common belief that we gain historical perspective’ with increasing distance seems to me to utterly misrepresent the actual situation. What we gain is merely confidence in generalization that we would never dare to make if we had access to the real wealth of contemporary evidence.”

Amen. If you want to learn about the importance of “invention” over the past 300 years, talk to the lawyers. If you want to hear about the importance of “innovation,” however, talk to anyone else. The history of invention is the story of litigation, not innovation. Don’t confuse them.

That’s why I can’t help but sigh when I read about a coming renaissance in invention or a technology-driven resurgence of talented amateur/multidisciplinary professional inventors. The role of invention in innovation is vastly overblown. Do we think it’s a mere accident of history that so many scientific discoveries or technical inventions emerge simultaneously from several different laboratories? Is anyone shocked anymore when the so-called original inventor wins at the patent office but loses in the marketplace?

The simple truth is that the economics of invention are profoundly different from the economics of innovation. Being “first to file” has nothing to do with being first to market. Being first to market has nothing to do with being first to profitability. Being first to profitability-and this is key!-has virtually nothing to do with how quickly, deeply, and ubiquitously an innovation spreads. In other words, there is no meaningful correlation-let alone causality-between a “successful” act of invention and a “successful” marketplace innovation. None.

Why should this surprise us? The marketplace triumphs of “winners” like Edison and Marconi were less a function of inspired inventorship than of ruthless business practice. We shouldn’t confuse the creation of an idea with its commercialization, any more than we should confuse an airplane with an airline or a telephone with a network.

Occasionally, markets understand this. IBM was a patent powerhouse throughout the 1980s. Alas, Big Blue’s gigantic portfolio of government-certified “intellectual-property” wealth failed to translate into superior investment returns for what had once been the world’s most valuable IT company. Patent productivity is a lousy measure for innovation that matters.

Look no further than the Internet bubble to see the total market disjunction between invention and innovation. The Internet suffered no shortage of truly inventive ideas. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of customers and clients who would actually pay a premium for them. In those halcyon days of 1995 to 2000, dot coms literally gave away the fruits of their inventions in hopes of first capturing business and then, finally, in hopes of staying alive. Even when the new inventions were effectively “free,” most of them failed.

The world is not suffering from a lack of inventiveness. Indeed, Econ 101 teaches that when the rate of supply dramatically accelerates past the rate of demand, supply becomes less valuable; you have a glut. If the U.S. government increased the number of patents it grants by a factor of ten, do we think inventions would-on average-become more valuable? Almost certainly not. Similarly, the romantic belief that dramatically increasing the number of quality inventors will dramatically increase the number of brilliant innovations is to misunderstand both the act of invention and the process of innovation. The real bottleneck isn’t invention; it’s the inability to cost-effectively translate breakthrough inventions into marketable products.

Without belittling the genius of the inventive spirit, I would suggest taking a more Neugebauerian perspective: the technical excellence of an invention matters far less than the economic willingness of the customer or client to explore it. A customer’s readiness to innovate is what makes invention possible. That’s why Technology Review is MIT’s Magazine of Innovation-not Invention. Good call.

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