While the lightbulb and the airplane may seem to have little in common, both of them went through a similar design process; one that all successful inventors follow in one form or another. It involves starting with a problem and moving on toward invention and testing—and it is a necessary part of developing any new product. There are a series of identifiable steps in this design process, and using the lightbulb as an example, we will see how it works.

As hard as it may be to imagine today, there was a time when people did not have the convenience of electric lights. Prior to 1879, many people lit candles every evening and depended on oil-fueled lamps to illuminate both private homes and public places. But that year, Thomas Edison changed everything when he invented the first incandescent lightbulb. Since then, electric lights have spread everywhere and allowed people to work and play 24 hours a day. This was truly an invention that changed human society forever.

Another revolutionary invention was the airplane. Prior to the 20th century, hardly anyone foresaw the day human beings would be able to drive across the country in a motorcar or fly thousands of miles through the air within a matter of hours. Yet, in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled flight of a human being in a heavier-than-air vehicle. After years of working on an airplane design, the Wright brothers were able to give us a tool of such importance that few other creations of mankind can rival it.

The design processes used for these and other inventions first starts with a problem that needs to be solved. The inventor must define this problem. In Edison’s case, the problem was the ability to produce a filament that could be heated to a glowing point without being destroyed too quickly. Producing electric lightbulbs would only be commercially viable if a long-lasting filament could be developed.

Once the problem has been defined, the inventor tries to imagine solutions to it. Edison initially chose to test filaments made out of platinum because of its high melting point but discovered that exposing hot platinum to air caused the metal to weaken too quickly. Later, he put the platinum filament in the vacuum tube that is integral to all modern incandescent lightbulbs. This solved the original problem of long lasting filament but the platinum filaments made lightbulbs too expensive for most people to purchase and use. Finally, Edison discovered that a "carbonized thread" could be used for the filament, lowering the lightbulb's cost and making it a commercially viable product.

The third and fourth steps occur as the inventor goes through the second step. As an inventor conceives and tests ideas, he needs to document his progress or else they risk making the same mistakes again and again without learning anything new.

The third step involves sketching out plans, recording results, and so on. Edison had to document his findings by hand, and some inventors still use the traditional pen-and-paper method. Today, however, many inventors use computer-aided design systems to automate much of the sketching and recording work.

The fourth step, testing and refinement, occurs throughout the invention process. Each time an inventor thinks of a possible solution to an identified problem, he must strive to make sure their idea actually works. They can't even consider marketing a new product until it has been thoroughly tested and proven operable.

The invention and design process may seem confusing, but it has led to some of the greatest advances in history. All prospective inventors use these steps, in one way or another and, as a result, technology has always advanced through trial and error. The next great inventor will be the person who sees a problem, conceives a solution, and tests that solution until it actually works.

About the Author

Adrian Ludwig is a senior account executive at Crest Capital, where he captures incremental online sales typically lost by standard vendor finance programs. Adrian works in nearly every industry vertical, providing leases and loans for equipment, vehicles, and software. Check out his most popular piece: The Difference Between Good Debt and Bad Debt.