Pagan Kennedy makes the case for a new field of study: human inventiveness

illustration of inventors climbing a ladder

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In the 1990s, writer Pagan Kennedy began hanging out at Building 20 on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accompanying her boyfriend at the time who was an artificial intelligence programmer and graduate student at MIT. Building 20 was a mostly wooden structure built in 1943 to temporarily house researchers working on radar for the U.S. military during the Second World War. After the war, the radar researchers departed, but MIT left the building in place and filled it with professors, researchers, and students from a hodgepodge of disciplines: meteorology, physics, education, linguistics, and more. The structure was dingy, contained asbestos, and was never meant to stand for 55 years. But the layout of its three floors encouraged mingling, and the mingling of so many disparate disciplines resulted in Building 20 becoming a remarkable incubator of innovation. Born there were some of the most important advances of modern times, from the atomic clock to modern linguistics.

Image credit: Patric Sandri

Kennedy, A&S '88 (MA), was enchanted by what she found. "There was a spirit there that I connected with," she says. "People were very focused on their passions and not very interested in proving that they were important. That spirit of tinkering and inspiration and joy in making things was so addictive that I really, without intellectualizing it, wanted to learn more and meet more people who were in that zone."

Partly as a result of this experience, Kennedy, who had studied fiction at Johns Hopkins, turned toward science writing. That brought her into contact with more inventors who worked in what she now thought of as the Building 20 spirit. In 2012, studying invention became a part-time job when The New York Times Magazine tapped her to write the Who Made That? column. The column told the origin stories of inventions often taken for granted—the waterbed, the Super Soaker, the trampoline, the eraser at the end of a pencil, sliced bread. Her first piece was about the use of fingerprints as criminal evidence; her last, 18 months later, was about the smoke alarm.

"I kept being surprised by who did make that," says Kennedy. She took up the column expecting to meet a lot of professional product designers in corporate research and development departments. Instead she met pilots, surgeons, housewives, parents—inventors all. People like Dick Belanger. A first-time father, Belanger hadn't minded dirty diapers, but he did mind the frequent spills caused by his toddler son. He bought a cup with a snap-on lid that promised to prevent leaks, but it was no match for his kid. So he decided to devise his own solution. Belanger was no stranger to invention; a mechanical engineer, he had filled a notebook that he'd dubbed "Dick's Book of Dumb Ideas." Calling on his expertise in nozzles—he had co-founded a hot glue gun company in the early 1980s—Belanger developed a prototype cup out of Tupperware parts and, as Kennedy wrote in the column, "added a built-in mouthpiece, experimenting with different kinds of valves until he found one that would let in some air as the child sipped. The air pressure trapped the liquid inside the cup so the nozzle didn't leak—even when you held the cup upside down." Belanger invested in a patent and the manufacture of several thousand cups. After a few successful years selling them to friends and acquaintances, he negotiated a licensing deal with Playtex, which still sells them. Thus was born the sippy cup.

As she tracked down inventors for the Times column, men and women who came up with the Pantone color chip and the tube top and movie popcorn and the kickstand, Kennedy realized that she'd discovered a largely untapped resource. "Many of these inventors had not talked deeply with anybody about what they had done or how they had worked. There's been a lot of study of what venture capitalists are doing, what managers are doing, but I was surprised at how few people have bothered to actually study how these really big ideas came into being." As she delved into the research, Kennedy began to notice patterns in the invention stories and gaps in the research into how invention works. Her 11th book, Inventology: How We Dream Things Up That Change the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), is her contribution to the field, focusing on successful inventions from the last 50 years.

Kennedy's research convinced her that invention is an innate ability, that within anyone is the capability to think creatively and critically and make improvements in our environment by inventing something. She writes, "Our brains have evolved for problem-solving, planning for future disasters, and subsisting in environments like the Arctic, where by all rights we should not be able to dwell." She points out that our bodies have adapted to what our brains invent, morphing from the strong bones and joints of our early ancestors, who had no machines or animals to share their workload, to our comparatively fragile modern frames. "If you ever doubt your pedigree as an inventor, simply glance down at your knees—those vulnerable joints belong to a species that learned how to coax beasts of burden and machines into doing its work."

She argues that it is essential to embrace and encourage this inborn personal inventiveness to solve the vexing issues of our time—hunger, antibiotic resistance, lack of access to clean water, and other mammoth problems. But she asserts that we are mostly ignorant about how invention works. Start with our ideas about inspiration. "We tend to believe that great ideas arrive like angels, in a flash of light," Kennedy writes, an assumption that can be traced to ancient Greeks who believed creativity was a gift from the Muses, passively received as instant insight. If we regard invention as a sort of mystical gift, we will find it hard to see ourselves as active participants in invention. Instead, she advocates looking to the successful inventors of the past as models for our own inventive activity. "It's crucial that we find out what people actually do as they invent things. What are they doing in their minds and with their hands?" Kennedy writes in the book's introduction. "We need a new field of study—call it Inventology—to answer that question."

Is there a formula for invention? Kennedy opens her book with this query, though it's a bit of a red herring. Inventology demonstrates through numerous examples that there is no unified theory of invention, no one way to go about it. Rather, there are several paths, and many successful inventors have traveled more than one. Kennedy sorts these paths into four that could be labeled problem-finding, serendipity, prophecy, and connecting.

She begins with finding problems in need of inventive solutions, introducing the concept of "lead users," a term coined by economist Eric von Hippel to describe people whose "job or hobby exposes them to an unusual kind of repetition, tedium, or danger." In his 1986 paper "Lead Users: An Important Source of Novel Product Concepts," von Hippel defined them as people who have strong individual needs that in the future will be shared by a much bigger market; plus, lead users often work on their own to create something that meets their needs. So they become market forecasters of a sort, and then designers of prototypes—like Belanger. Although he was a professional engineer and a serial inventor, the sippy cup sprang out of Belanger's frustrations as a parent, so in that sense he is an example of a lead user. Pilot Robert Plath was another lead user.

In the 1980s, tired of shouldering his luggage around airports, Plath tinkered in his home workshop until he'd developed the rolling suitcase that is omnipresent in airports today. At the time, Plath was among the few who traveled often enough to need easier-to-schlep luggage. "By virtue of his job, Plath was already living in the future, when flying would become a commonplace misery," Kennedy writes. In the 1990s, as a new generation of so-called "hyperfliers" began flying for work more often, "passengers were hunting for anything that would ease the pain of cramped flights—from Xanax to noise-canceling headphones. And that's when the rolling suitcase became essential equipment."

Not every invention starts with a lead user who has a problem to be solved. Some begin as happy accidents. Kennedy examines chance discoveries that turn out to be solutions. "The microwave oven, Teflon, Velcro, the pacemaker, safety glass, X-rays—these all began when a lab worker bumped into some unusual phenomenon, became fascinated with it, and then figured out how to put it to use," Kennedy writes. "These inventors often begin with a hunch that they've hit on a major discovery, but they may not know why—until years later." For Duane Pearsall, serendipity was a major factor in his invention of the smoke detector. In 1963, he was at work on a device to reduce the dangerous static electricity found in photography labs and factories. One day someone lit a cigarette nearby, and Pearsall's "static neutralizer" reacted strongly to the smoke. He noticed, but he didn't see another use for it until a friend who worked at Honeywell urged him to turn his device into a smoke detector. At the time, thousands of Americans were dying in house fires annually, and most fire alarms were built to sense heat, not smoke; those that did detect smoke were unreliable and costly and not often used in homes. After years of development, Pearsall created the first inexpensive, battery-powered home smoke detector.

In the 1970s, a man named Genrich Altshuller—whom Kennedy calls the "father of Inventology"—conducted workshops in the Soviet Union that encouraged inventive thinking through science fiction. Altshuller was a science fiction author himself, publishing novels as Genrich Altov. When he was growing up in the 1930s, Altshuller's young mind was alight with the alien worlds depicted in sci-fi novels. After reading about the pressure suit Captain Nemo donned to walk the ocean floor in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 14-year-old Altshuller designed and secured a patent for such a suit. In his workshops, he would ask his students first to dream up their own science fiction worlds. "This was a way of encouraging them to use narrative as a 'laboratory' for invention," Kennedy writes. Start by prophesying a world with futuristic devices, then invent the devices for the here and now. Kennedy notes a similar practice in the modern day: Intel Corporation's futurist Brian David Johnson "advocates for experimenting with written narratives, films, and cartoons to envision new possibilities—a technique he calls 'science-fiction prototyping.' We can 'use these fictions to get our minds around what that thing might one day be.'"

Sometimes inventors engage in a sort of technological forecasting to devise products that they believe will be useful to the future. In the mid-1950s, Motorola engineer and product manager Martin Cooper witnessed how quickly doctors and nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City took to new Motorola pagers that permitted unprecedented mobile connectivity. From this he conjectured that a mobile phone, small enough to be held in the hand like those pagers, would someday be just as indispensable. Despite being so bulky that it was nicknamed "the brick," the first mobile phone debuted by Motorola in 1973 captured the imagination of the public and the press. Cooper's hunch was right. The mobile phone is now ubiquitous and, to most users, essential.

Kennedy writes about people like Cooper who invent from within their specialty, but she also focuses on outsiders, who from their different perspectives can see what specialists within disciplines sometimes do not and make unexpected connections. "Breakthroughs often happen when we allow unlikely collaborators and odd bedfellows to share our problems, or when we leap across boundaries," she writes.

She cites examples from InnoCentive, a network of more than 300,000 "solvers" who vie for often substantial cash prizes by inventing solutions to problems that have stumped others. Winners of these challenges often hail from outside the problem's field and frequently draw on knowledge from other disciplines. In a 2010 paper about his study of 166 InnoCentive competitions, Karim Lakhani, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues shared that most had been won by outsiders. "Often, they picked up a technique or a concept in one place, and like bees carrying pollen, they'd fly to a new flower," Kennedy writes. "Scanning the list of InnoCentive's top solvers, you notice that a lot of them have acted as go-betweens, tying together knowledge from two or more disciplines. They're willing—even eager—to step outside their job titles." Take John Davis, who won the 2007 "Breaking Viscous Shear of Crude Oil" challenge posed on InnoCentive by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Alaska. From a summer job in construction, Davis knew about the pneumatic vibrator tools that prevent concrete from setting while being poured. He proposed that oil recovery barges use these same vibrating tools to keep their collected oil and water from freezing into a viscous mass, enabling the oil to remain a liquid that could more easily be transferred. For this outsider's proposal, Davis earned $20,000.

How can this sort of cross-disciplinary, outside-the-silo thinking be encouraged? Kennedy advocates the creation of what she terms "zones of permission"—places like Building 20, or Bell Laboratories, a one-time research and development division of AT&T that, Kennedy writes, in the 1960s "was a model of free exchange, a hive of activity where engineers and mathematicians wandered through a playground of oscilloscopes, picture phones, laser beams, and blackboards, riffing on each other's thoughts like free-jazz musicians improving a tune." Smart, creative people mingled in the Eero Saarinen-designed atrium of the labs' central building in Holmdel, New Jersey, feeding off each other's ideas and energy. Out of this environment came a variety of stunning inventions, from the laser to satellite transmission to solar cells. (Johns Hopkins has created its own zones of permission, including the Applied Physics Laboratory's Central Spark innovation center.)

Kennedy points out that these zones of permission are not always free of obstacles; companies sometimes do not pursue promising ideas, wary of pushing too far into unknown territory. For all of its embracing of innovation, Bell Labs wasn't a place where every great idea came to fruition: "Its inventors developed magnetic tape, cellular phones, fiber optics, fax machines, and a host of other key technologies. But management scuttled these projects for a variety of reasons—for instance, because bosses worried that the upstart technology might threaten profits from AT&T's landline phones. Or it may be that the managers simply did not recognize the potential of the gizmos that materialized in the labs."

When she looks at the Internet, which she characterizes as "a vast public atrium where ideas ricochet among billions of people," Kennedy sees a massive zone of permission. Crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter enable inventors to test the market for new products with comparatively little risk. Researchers can mine the online massive datasets commonly referred to as big data, searching for previously undetected patterns in medical research that could pave the way for new pharmaceuticals.

And strangers all over the world can work together on projects. The Robohand company creates custom prosthetic devices using three-dimensional printers, which lay down layer after layer of plastic to create the device from a digital blueprint. The company enlists its online community in the devices' design and makes the blueprints available for free so that anyone with access to a 3-D printer can print and assemble a prosthetic hand at home for as little as $30—a far cry from the tens of thousands of dollars that such a device might otherwise cost. Jon Schull, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, has created e-NABLE, a Google Plus group that connects those who want a prosthetic hand or arm with volunteers who will print out the components on a 3-D printer. "There is now a real possibility of distributed, decentralized invention, manufacturing, and distribution," Schull says in Inventology. "The tools of production are now in the hands of the masses. There's a real chance that we're going from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Revolution to the Alternative Economy Revolution."

Such exciting developments are not without unanticipated consequences, Kennedy observes. Now that design tools formerly accessible only to professional specialists are available to anyone, will those specialists find it harder to make a living? Kennedy has seen what happened in journalism. "The rise of blogging and citizen journalism has been amazing and has opened up the world and given us new kinds of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter," she says. "There's so much that is amazing about this revolution and has made ours a much better world. … [But] I've seen so many colleagues laid off, so many newspapers die. It's disheartening to watch journalists be paid less and less and wonder how is this going to be sustainable. That same bind may be coming to the world of engineering and product design."

But in Kennedy's mind, there's little choice but to pursue individual inventiveness. "Apple and Google create terrific products that we love. But corporations are not designed to solve social and environmental problems." Although corporate inventors may solve some of the big problems, in general companies are driven not by the greater good but by financial gain, which can narrow their vision to what seems to promise future profits. Kennedy ends Inventology with a populist rallying cry first hinted at in the book's subtitle: We all have within us the capacity to participate in invention—whether by creating a sippy cup or contributing $50 to a GoFundMe project or discovering a kind of mold that saves lives. There is no one way to invent, no one perspective or background that is more fruitful or productive when it comes to invention; in our diversity lies our strength. The extraordinary human knee that Kennedy sees as emblematic of the inventor within all of us was not created by an R&D department staffed by specialists in biomechanics; rather, it evolved from the "input" of millions of users who invented solutions to problems as varied as those users' experience and viewpoints. "Each of us comes to the problems from a unique vantage point, and we're all fluent in our own language of solutions," she writes. "So if we can harness the enormous diversity of 7 billion minds, we stand a far greater chance of discovering the elegant solutions that lie somewhere out in the unknown."

Marianne Amoss is a writer in Baltimore.