Inventions fascinate people. I would venture to say, almost universally. The further we judge an invention from being within our own capabilities to produce, the more fascinated we are with it. I doubt I would have ever thought of the aerofoil. Even simpler inventions win from us a sort of applause for the winner that easily could have been me, had I been a little quicker. If the current sticky-note inventor had not been born I am sure many other people would have thought of it.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention.” This allegedly American proverb (actually it is much older) is accepted as an adequate explanation for inventions, while saying nothing at all about what “is” an invention. The French, in a curiously similar manner, say “Fear is a great inventor.” Even Mark Twain felt compelled to declare an abstract link to inventing when he said, “Accident is the name of the greatest of all inventors.” While necessity, fear, and accidents may all be observable and materially present preceding the emergence of an invention, none of these defines an invention; none of these tells us how a human being invents. At best, these phrases describe a catalyst or a motivator, these are not complete descriptions. These are not definitions.
The word “invention” means finding or discovery, if my introduction to Latin is of any value. This might give us some insight initially but let us explore whether that which is discovered is original or the result of some previous input. The words of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), both objective and sincere, appear worthy of investigation: “Invention strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have previously gathered and deposited in the memory; nothing can come from nothing.” The key contention proffered by Sir Joshua Reynolds is, nothing can come from nothing.
The human reaction often elicited by an invention when perceived initially reveals some universal consent worth noting. For often thereat we hear exclamations such as, “That guy was thinking!” or “what a clever idea!” If these two exclamations have value, we can then say that thoughts and ideas are essential to inventions. What is a thought? What is an idea? If we allow that thoughts are the work of the mind, and if we further allow that ideas are that upon which the mind works we can readily explore and formulate a rational doctrine about inventing, even if it is done on a hypothetical premise. That which is hypothetical in the formula is not at all far-fetched or irrational. Let us first look at the material substance of the act of thinking, the idea. From there we can easily grasp how this thing called the idea can be manipulated.
The idea is the mind's representation of a reality. This is the common understanding in western civilization. The mind acquires and accumulates ideas, first from sense experience after said experience passes through the process of abstraction. Often, with the theater of life's experiences, sense experience is stored in the proper power but abstracted essences arrived at by the mind working upon sense experience, are stored in another faculty, the intellectual memory. These abstracted essences are ideas.
Ideas are classified under several categories but let us briefly consider the category of complexity. An idea is either simple or compound. A simple idea needs only one note to describe it. “Dark” or “fast” or “wet” or “yellow” are examples of simple ideas. A compound idea uses multiple simple ideas to describe it. Most of our ideas are compound that is why we have dictionaries listing the set of simple ideas which define a compound idea. Within this realm of activity lies the process of inventing. Thus we see, by the fact that dictionaries exist, that we are capable of taking apart compound ideas into the group of specific simple ideas describing said compound idea. We call this “taking apart” analysis. We can also perceive that simple ideas can be combined to construct new and original compound ideas. This “combining” is called synthesis. I think the observant reader already knows by now what an inventor is or what it means to invent.
Analysis and synthesis are two simple acts of the mind and these two actions comprise the heart of inventing. Inventing is essentially an act of synthesis. What is synthesized? In the act of inventing that which is synthesized is an arrangement of simple ideas and this arrangement comprises a new compound idea. While the arrangement may be original the constituent parts are not original. Similarly a very common thing like a pile of bricks may be rearranged thereby producing a structure unlike any previous arrangement of bricks. The bricks are not an original idea. The new structure could be very original. Who then, is most likely to invent?
Every human being with functioning mental faculties can invent. One need only perform the simple act of the mind called abstraction in order to store, initially from sense experience, a library of simple ideas. These ideas thus stored are recalled and arranged in a new and original scheme that usually responds to a need. What an inventor does first is define a need. He then goes to work arranging ideas until he finds an arrangement that works. The disposition toward inventing, that is the willingness to define a need, as well as the willingness to search within and without in order to discover an arrangement that solves the need, is of course essential to the inventor's personality. In addition to this necessary disposition is the large library of simple ideas, abstracted and stored from many previous projects.
Due to the large variety of life experiences from which he can draw, the seasoned inventor sometimes appears way too confident about the challenge in front of him. Just ask him to tell you about all of the things he made that didn't work. You will not only enjoy a good laugh, you will also come to know that good inventors have failed often. They did not fail permanently because every failure added to their library of ideas. Failing intelligently is foundational to becoming a good inventor.