Here’s an invention of John Muir’s:
The image is via the Sierra Club’s blog – and they describe it as a study desk that “would automatically light his lamp and fire, open the right book to study, and then change books after half an hour.” As an object, it’s ingeniusly clever. I was always aware of Muir as a great naturalist and a key player in the establishment of national parks in the US, but I never knew about this side of him. But here’s an interesting question: as inventive as this study desk is, is it an innovation?
I don’t think that it is an innovation. In my classes I always talk about innovations as being an idea that is ready to spread. Which means first that it has to be an idea that we know will work – Muir not only made the plans for the desk, but he built one so we know that this part is true. However, the second part of being ready to spread requires some method for replication throughout the economy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that something has to be sold – non-profits and other organisations that give ideas away can still be innovative. But usually, innovations require someone to ensure that the idea can be replicated somehow. And that’s where Muir’s desk fails (though to be fair, he may have never intended the idea to go any further than his own use).
There’s often a gap between the invention of something and the point where it becomes an innovation. The computer mouse was invented at Stanford University in 1968, and the Graphical User Interface that takes full advantage of the mouse was invented at Xerox’s PARC labs shortly after that. But neither really became an innovation until they were both included in the Xerox Star PC in 1981. That’s about a 12 year gap between invention and innovation – and gaps like that aren’t unusual.
This is another argument for not getting too hung up on ideas. The people and firms that win through innovation are the ones that execute ideas best, not the ones that have ideas.