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The myth of the Eureka moment

written by Jackie Lorch

People say that this is the most creative era ever for market research, with new technologies, techniques and products announced almost daily. How did this creative “golden age” come to be? Are we attracting more creative people into our ranks? Well, perhaps, but according to Mark Lemley in his paper the Myth of the Sole Inventor, reported recently in The Atlantic magazine, it’s more likely that we’re just doing a better job of collectively expanding our body of knowledge and expertise, and  bringing new ideas to market.

“Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions,” says Lemley. Even well-known inventors of the past, achieved greatness as the result of collaboration or being first to market. For example:

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph – but so did four others, in such a short time frame that authorities refused to issue a single patent to anyone.

Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone was such an obvious extension of the telegraph that there were many people working on it. Others had built a sound transmitter and receiver before Bell. Bell’s contribution was nothing so much as a “tweak” says Lemley – and someone else filed a patent application on the same day as Bell.

Someone else who “tweaked” a previous product was Thomas Edison who did a better job than others of making and marketing lightbulbs, but didn’t invent them.

The auto industry is the epitome of incremental innovation, says Lemley. Both Dodge and Mercedes started with bikes before moving on to cars. And Henry Ford’s great invention was the assembly line.

The only true Eureka moments, says Lemley, appear to be the result of accidents, like Alexander Fleming having mold grow on his bacteria, or the 3M employee making up a batch of not-very-good-glue, abandoning it, and much later having a colleague use it to make a bookmark.

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Categories: Market Research

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