As hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time when people did not have the convenience of electric lights. Prior to 1879, people depended on oil-fueled lamps to illuminate both private homes and public places, and many still lit candles every evening. But Thomas Edison changed everything when he invented the first incandescent lightbulb that year. Since then, electric lights have shown up everywhere, allowing people to work and play 24 hours a day. This was truly an invention that changed human society forever.
- National Inventors Hall of Fame
- Smith College: Museum of Ancient Inventions
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Science and Technology
Then there is the airplane. Hardly anyone before the 20th century foresaw the day human beings would be able to drive across the country in a motorcar, let alone 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—and now we all take commercial air travel for granted. 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.
- Smithsonian: American Inventors and Inventions
- The Franklin Institute: Inventor
- University of Virginia: Jefferson's Inventions
While the lightbulb and the airplane may seem to have little in common, both of them went through a similar design process. All successful inventors follow this process 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.
- University of Idaho: Engineering Design Process
- Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts (Google eBook)
First, every invention starts with a problem that needs a solution. The inventor must define this problem, which in the case of Edison's lightbulb was the problem of producing 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. So he put the platinum filament in the vacuum tube that is integral to all modern incandescent lightbulbs. This solved the problem—except that platinum filaments made lightbulbs too expensive for most people to 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 actually take place simultaneously with the second. As an inventor conceives and tests ideas, he needs to document his progress—otherwise he risks 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 the problem he has identified, he must strive to make sure his idea actually works. He 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, at least informally—technology has always advanced by 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.