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What Is An Inventor and What It Means to Invent
Inventions fascinate people. Almost universally, I would venture to say. The further we judge an invention on the basis that it is within our own manufacturing capabilities, the more we are fascinated by it. I doubt I ever thought of airfoils. Even the simpler inventions earn us a kind of round of applause for the winner, who could have been me if I had been a little faster. If the current inventor of the note had not been born, surely many other people would have thought of it.
Most of us have heard the expression “necessity is the mother of invention”. This supposedly American proverb (actually much older) is accepted as an adequate explanation of inventions, while saying nothing at all about what an invention “is”. In a strangely similar way, the French say, “Fear is a great inventor.” Even Mark Twain felt compelled to proclaim the abstract connection to invention when he said, “Accident is the name of all inventors.” Although necessity, fear, and misfortune may all be observable and materially present before the invention, none of them define the invention; none of them tell us how man invents. At best, these phrases describe a catalyst or motivator, they are not complete descriptions. These are not definitions.
The word “invention” means to find or discover, if my introduction to Latin is valuable. This may give us an initial insight, but we will investigate whether what is discovered is original or the result of some previous input. The words of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), both objective and sincere, seem worthy of study: “Strictly speaking, an invention is nothing more than a new combination of images previously collected and stored in memory; nothing can come from nothing.” Sir Joshua Reynolds’ main point is that nothing can come from nothing.
The human reaction which the invention often elicits initially indicates a certain general consent which is worth noting. We often hear exclamations there, for example: “This man thought!” or “what a clever idea!” If these two exclamations have value, then we can say that thoughts and ideas are essential to inventions. What’s the point? What is the idea? If we allow that thoughts are the work of the mind, and if we further allow that ideas are those upon which the mind operates, we can easily investigate and formulate a rational doctrine of invention, even if it is done on a hypothetical premise. What is hypothetical in the formula is by no means far-fetched or irrational. Let us first look at the material substance of the act of thinking, the idea. From there we can easily understand how this thing called idea can be manipulated.
An idea is a representation of reality by the mind. This is a common understanding in Western civilization. The mind acquires and collects ideas first from sense experience after the experience undergoes a process of abstraction. Often with the theater of life experience the sense experience is stored in the right capacity, but the abstracted essences arrived at by the mind working from the sense experience are stored in another department, the intellectual memory. These abstract essences are ideas.
Ideas fall into several categories, but let’s take a quick look at the complexity category. The idea is either simple or compound. Only one note is needed to describe a simple idea. “Dark” or “quick” or “wet” or “yellow” are examples of simple ideas. A compound idea uses several simple ideas to describe it. Most of our ideas are compound ideas, which is why we have dictionaries that list a set of simple ideas that define a compound idea. In this field of activity lies the process of invention. Thus, based on the existence of dictionaries, we see that we are able to separate a compound idea into a group of specific simple ideas that describe that compound idea. We call this a “disassembly” analysis. We can also perceive that simple ideas can be combined to construct new and original compound ideas. This “combination” is called synthesis. I think that the attentive reader knows by now what an inventor is or what invention means.
Analysis and synthesis are two simple acts of the mind, and these two acts form the core of invention. Invention is essentially an act of synthesis. What is synthesized? In the process of invention, an arrangement of simple ideas is synthesized, and this arrangement contains a new compound idea. While the layout may be original, the ingredients are not. Similarly, a very common thing, such as a pile of bricks, can be rearranged, thereby creating a structure that differs from any previous arrangement of bricks. Bricks are not an original idea. The new structure could be very original. So who is most likely to invent?
Any person with functioning mental faculties can invent. To store a library of simple ideas from an original sense experience requires only a simple operation of the mind called abstraction. Such stored ideas are recalled and placed into a new and original schema that usually meets the need. What the inventor does first defines the need. Then he goes to work and puts ideas together until he finds an arrangement that works. The propensity to invent, that is, the willingness to define a need, as well as the willingness to search internally and externally to find a solution that solves the need, is of course essential to the inventor’s personality. In addition to this necessary disposition, there is a large library of simple ideas taken and saved from many previous projects.
Because of the variety of life experiences he can draw from, the seasoned inventor sometimes seems overconfident about the challenge before him. Just ask him to tell you about all the things he did that didn’t work. Not only will you enjoy a good laugh, but you’ll also learn that good inventors often fail. They did not fail permanently because each failure added to their pool of ideas. Intelligent failure is the basis of becoming a good inventor.
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