Before World War II, most innovation came from the toils of sole inventors with well-known names such as Davinci, Copernicus, Curie, Bell, Edison, Bohr, Maxwell, Newton, Einstein, Faraday and many more. However, the role of the individual innovator changed during WWII, when a need to increase the pace of innovation outstripped the individual’s production capabilities.
The United States responded to the challenge by forming the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) “…to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare.” As a result of the NDRC and other organizations like it, the roots of innovation shifted from the individual inventor to the process of Organized Research and Development (OR&D).
Leading and Trailing Technologies
Organized Research and Development is expensive. It produces leading technologies that require even more resources to commercialize. But with the pace of innovation accelerating, leading technologies don’t hold that spot very long. As new technologies are invented, once-leading technologies eventually become trailing technologies–innovations that may lack their original luster, yet fill a new role. Trailing technologies meet the affordability and functionality requirements of individual inventors.
Many examples of the leading-to-trailing technology exchange show how the innovation cycle has been affected. For example, when transistors replaced vacuum tubes, individual innovators built circuits out of cheap tubes. When integrated circuits (ICs) replaced transistors, individual inventors started building things with transistors. And as Moore’s Law compounded the advances in integrated circuits, trailing IC technologies were scooped up by individual inventors such as Steve Wozniak to build things like personal computers.
For the past sixty years, the differences between leading and trailing technologies were large enough to limit the effectiveness of individual inventors. Not anymore. With trailing technology microprocessors powerful enough to perform real-time processing, standardized protocols that allow ubiquitous communications, cloud-based storage and processing services that offer scale, and access to pools of other inventors via social networks, the individual innovator is making a comeback. The day has come where millions of individual innovators now have the capacity to solve problems more efficiently than their deep-pocketed OR&D counterparts.
So, what are they going to invent? My next post will cover the things that these new innovators must do to take advantage of their new-found bounty.
Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell: Courtesy Smithsonian on Flickr