Dear Colleagues,

As engineering professionals, I believe we all think of inventing the next dream machine which will change human history. However, life is considerably more prosaic than this, isn’t it?

There is the odd exception of a device created which is totally new and takes the world by storm. But even these are often arrived by looking at other similar examples.

Great Inventions Don’t Arise Overnight
Thus it is reasonably safe to generalise that most great inventions are really arrived at by inching forward (hopefully with improvements) in tiny steps from previous creations.

Think of the famous ‘zipper’ invented in 1917 by Gideon Sundback. He drew on earlier successful devices such as the ‘clasp locker’ developed at the end of the nineteenth century and the ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’ developed four decades earlier.

The same applies to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb in the late 1800s. Already some hundred years earlier, in 1800, Davy had invented a light with a platinum filament. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the latest incarnations of lights based on LEDs are also developed to some degree from these original inventions.

The Tricky and Wrinkly Bit
Most of us are working on designs which represent improvements on something we had done before. And surely, every great design and product is replaced by another one in due course. I only need to think of the iron ore processing plant I helped design and build. Although it was cleverly designed and innovative, it was based around earlier designs and has now been replaced by something even faster and cheaper to operate today.

As you well know (especially by looking at software); a later version of a product or service doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement. You could be going back in terms of performance, reliability and quality.

The other point to observe is the first to market with a product is not necessarily the one who reaps the rewards. Think of the first software spreadsheet conceptualised and developed by Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc). This was arrived at after Dan observed a table with rows and columns manually updated on a whiteboard. This original success was quickly eclipsed by incrementally improved products such as Lotus 123 and now Excel.

Above all, you can be sure of one thing: nothing stays the same.

Thanks to 101 Things I learned in Engineering School by John Kuprenas with Matthew Frederick.

On the topic of creating something revolutionary, Honore de Balzac remarked: Necessity is often the spur to genius.

Yours in engineering learning,