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The Sources of Invention

by John Jewkes

The author is Professor of Economic Organization in the University of Oxford. This article first appeared in the January 1958 issue of Lloyds Bank Review. This article is reprinted from Essays on Liberty, Vol. V, published by the Foundation for Economic Education. Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Essays on Liberty.

It seems to be almost universally assumed that the launching of the space satellites was made possible only by employing vast teams of technicians working together in large research institutions under close central guidance and with unlimited resources and equipment. This may be true, although nobody in the Western world can actually know that it is so. Any suggestion that the difference between failure and success might have re-suited from a pathbreaking discovery by some worker not in a large institution and perhaps not even interested primarily in high- altitude rockets would, nearly everywhere, be instantly dismissed as ludicrous. All this is indicative of the degree to which we are now dominated by the doctrine that technical progress can come only from mass attacks upon set problems.

In fact, a glance at the history of the high-altitude rocket hardly supports such a theory. Some of the more important early scientific writings on this subject, published in 1903, were those of a Russian schoolmaster, [p. 115] K. E. Ziolkowsky. He made many fundamental contributions to rocket technology. (Russia was probably further ahead of other countries in thought and work on rockets in 1908 than now.) Perhaps the most important scientific contribution to rocket theory, however, was made by Hermann Oberth, a teacher of mathematics in Transylvania, who in 1928 published his classic, By Rocket into Interplanetary Space.

German Rocket Experts

Between the two world wars practical interest was maintained by a group of young German amateurs, some of whom were destined to become later outstanding figures in this field. During the war the German military authorities took up the development of the rocket and finally produced the V2, which covered a distance of 120 miles with a deflection of only 212 miles from the target, reached a speed of 3,000 miles per hour and a height of nearly 60 miles. When Germany was finally overrun, the Peenemünde experts were scattered. Some went to the United States and Britain; more finished up in Russia.

Considering the rapid progress made by Germany in a relatively short period during the war, the development of high-altitude rockets since that time seems to have been fairly slow everywhere; for by 1945 there was no doubt that a satellite could be placed in the sky by the use of rockets and there was no great mystery about how, in general, this could be done. The fundamental discoveries in regard to high-altitude rocket propulsion, as distinct from the refinement and development of these [p. 116] ideas, were made by independent enthusiasts working with limited resources under discouraging conditions and for long ridiculed or ignored by the main bodies of organized science and technology.

A New Theory of Progress

Even, however, before atomic energy and the sputniks, new notions had been gaining ground about how inventions could best be stimulated and how scientists and technologists might be employed to the best effect. (These ideas began to be strongly advocated only during the 1930's. Before that time, it will be recalled, it was commonly believed that the problem of production was solved and that the distribution of wealth was the important task to be dealt with; that technical progress was perhaps going on too quickly and that scientists and technologists were probably doing more harm than good in the world.)

The new doctrines really amount to a claim that the world has suddenly become a different kind of place, that the lessons of the past have largely become irrelevant and that we must all now adjust ourselves and our thinking accordingly. This "modern" view can be summarized as follows.

In the nineteenth century, most inventions came from the individual inventor who had little or no scientific training and who worked largely with simple equipment and by empirical methods and unsystematic hunches. The link between science and technology was slight.

In the twentieth century, the argument runs on, the [p. 117] characteristic features of the nineteenth century are rapidly passing away. The individual inventor is becoming rare; men with the power of originating are largely absorbed into research institutions of one kind or another where they must have expensive equipment for their work. Useful invention, in particular, is to an ever-increasing degree issuing from the research laboratories of large firms which alone can afford to operate on an appropriate scale. There is increasingly close contact now between science and technology. The consequence is that invention has become more automatic, less the result of intuition or flashes of genius and more a matter of deliberate design. The growing power to invent, combined with the increased resources devoted to it, has produced a spurt of technical progress to which no obvious limit is to be seen.

In this article are set down some of the results of an inquiry, shortly to be published in full,1 designed to test these opinions against the observable facts. It was hoped in this way to make some contribution to a better understanding of the dynamics of industrial societies. The study, it must be repeated, covered a period before atomic energy and space satellites. It may be that these latest spectacular discoveries, and the circumstances in which they have arisen, rob earlier experience of all pertinence for thinking about the future. I personally have doubts about this but cannot enlarge on them here. [p. 118]

Further, the study was confined to inventions as contrasted with the development of those inventions; it was concerned with the early crucial periods of radical innovation and not the later stages of improvement and exploitation of the original discoveries. It is, of course, impossible to draw a sharp dividing line between the two. On the other hand, it would be futile to deny that some new ideas are more revolutionary than others, that certain conceptions start a long chain of consequential improvements and that, unless the flow of these seminal ideas can be maintained, technical progress will finally come to a stop.

Twentieth-Century Inventions

The first task was to pick out a group of twentieth century inventions which might be regarded as a fair cross-section of the technical progress of the past fifty years; to make as detailed a study as possible of the conditions under which they had arisen and, in particular, to try to identify the respective parts played by individual inventors, the research activities of firms of varying size, of universities, and of other institutions where research is conducted. A list of about sixty inventions was studied, ranging from acrylic fibers to the zip fastener, from air conditioning to xerography.2 [p. 119]

The clearest conclusion emerging from the inquiry was that simple generalizations are not possible. The important twentieth century inventions have arisen in all sorts of ways and through the activity of all the different possible agencies. More than one-half of the cases can be ranked as individual invention in the sense that much of the pioneering work was carried through by men who were working on their own behalf without the backing of research institutions and often with lim ited resources and assistance or, where the inventors were employed in institutions, these institutions were, as in the case of universities, of such a kind that the individuals were autonomous.

The jet engine was invented and carried through the early stages of development almost simultaneously in Great Britain and Germany by men who were either individual inventors unconnected with the aircraft industry or who worked on the airframe side of the industry and were not specialists in engine design; the aircraft engine manufacturers came in only after much pioneering had been carried on. The gyro-compass was invented [p. 120] by a young man who was neither a scientist nor a sailor but had some scientific background and was interested in art and exploration.

The process of transforming liquid fats by hardening them for use in soap, margarine, and other foods was discovered by a chemist working in an oil industry, who pursued his researches and his efforts to get the process adopted, singlehanded. The devices which made practicable the hydraulic power steering of motor vehicles were primarily the work of two men, one of whom worked strictly on his own, while the other was the head of a small engineering company.

The foundations of the radio industry were laid by scientists; but the majority of the basic inventions came from individual inventors who had no connection with established firms in the communications industry or who worked for, or had themselves created, new small firms. In the case of magnetic recording, the early crucial invention came from an independent worker, as did a number of the major inventive improvements; the interest of the companies arose much later. The first successful system for the catalytic cracking of petroleum, which opened up the way for many later advances, was the product of a well-to-do engineer who was able to sell his ideas for development to the oil companies.

No Standard Pattern

The history of the evolution of the cotton picker reveals two main lines of progress: in each case, individual [p. 121] inventors working with limited resources were able to take their ideas to the point where large firms were prepared to buy or license their patents for subsequent development. Bakelite, the first of the thermosetting plastics, was produced by a brilliant sole investigator. The first, and still the most important, commercially practicable method of producing ductile titanium was conceived of by a metallurgist working in his own laboratory.

In the application of automatic transmissions to motor vehicles, the credit for mechanical novelty has to be shared between individual inventors and companies, but the former should probably rank above the latter; actually, the ideas of a shipbuilding engineer lie behind much of the modern progress, but both in Britain and the United States inventors working singlehanded have contributed a great deal to the present-day mechanisms. Up to 1938, only one large aircraft manufacturer had taken much interest in the helicopter and even that only as the result of the personal interest of the head of the firm: the progress was made by the enthusiasm of individual inventors, usually with limited resources, obtaining backing in unlikely quarters in a manner which would parallel the many stories of "heroic" invention in the nineteenth century.

To mention one or two inventions from the field of consumer goods, the groundwork for the successful Kodachrome process was laid by two young collaborators, both musicians, whose ideas were taken up by a large photographic firm; the safety razor came from two [p. 122] individuals who struggled through financial and technical doldrums to great success; the zip fastener came from the minds of two engineers and was only taken up for large-scale production many years later; the self-winding wrist watch was invented by a British watch repairer.

Small Companies Contribute

The list next contains several important inventions emerging from firms which were small or of only moderate size. Terylene was discovered by a small research group in the laboratory of a firm which had no direct interest in the production of new fibers. The continuous hot strip rolling of steel sheets was conceived of by an inventor who might well be considered an individual inventor and perfected in one of the smaller American steel companies. The crease-resisting process emerged from a medium-sized firm in the Lancashire cotton industry. Cellophane tape was the product of what was virtually a one-man effort in a then small American firm. The virtues of DDT were found by a Swiss chemical firm which, for that industry, was of modest dimensions.

Some outstanding successes arose out of the research of very large firms. Nylon was discovered by a small research group, headed by an outstanding chemist, in the laboratories of du Pont. Slightly later another very large firm, I. G. Farbenindustrie, produced and developed a similar fiber, Perlon. Several firms, all large, in Germany and the United States have devised methods of producing successful acrylic fibers. Freon refrigerants [p. 123] and tetraethyl lead were both produced in General Motors by small groups under Midgley and Kettering; the cases are interesting in that a motor engineering firm made these two important contributions in the chemical field and in that their discovery involved a strong element of chance.

In the story of television, one outstanding figure was an employee of the Radio Corporation of America, but a number of the crucial inventions were made by a second American inventor who worked independently; and the first complete system for television broadcasting was created for the British Broadcasting Corporation by a British firm of modest size. The transistor was produced in the Bell Telephone Laboratories, a case which comes nearer than most to research directed towards a predetermined result.

An Accidental Discovery

Polyethylene was discovered, in the course of some very broad scientific studies and as the immediate outcome of a fortunate accident, in the laboratories of Imperial Chemical Industries and developed by them; but methods of producing polyethylene at low pressures were later discovered at about the same time in one of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany and by American companies. Krilium was the discovery of research workers in the Monsanto Chemical Company, the result being attained by a combination of chance and a systematic search of a very wide field. In the discovery of [p. 124] the methyl methacrylate polymers, known variously as Perspex, Lucite, and Plexiglas, two large firms were primarily involved: I.C.I. and Röhm & Haas; but an independent research student appears to have made an important contribution. The diesel-electric locomotive probably embodied less inventive effort than many of those mentioned above; it represented the development by European and American firms, and especially by General Motors in the United States, of nineteenth century inventions.

The recent remarkable growth in the use of silicones represents the discovery of practical applications for compounds produced by a British university scientist, the usefulness of which was first realized by scientists in an American company. The discovery of Neoprene is a romantic story in which a priest, occupying a chair in chemistry in an American university, was responsible for observations which were taken up by a large chemical firm and carried much further by them to a successful conclusion.

Miscellaneous Developments

Finally, some of the cases quite defied classification: where a research worker in an industrial laboratory produced an invention outside his own professional field; where an individual inventor and a company reached much the same results at the same time; where a gov ernment research station, an industrial company, scientists in the universities, and individual inventors all made [p. 125] important contributions to the final result, and so on. Such cases, of course, heighten the impression of a picture which admits of no simple explanation.

The cases taken as a whole reveal that no one country has a monopoly of inventive power. The outstanding names and groups are widely spread over many industrial countries.

The Communists Had None

One significant exception is that, in none of the sixty cases studied, had contributions been made by Russian workers subsequent to the Revolution. Before that date, numerous names of distinguished Russian contributors crop up: the early Russian work in rockets has already been mentioned; in the early efforts linked with television occurs the name of Rosing; Zworykin, who later on in the United States was to make one of the vital contributions to the perfection of television, acquired his interests in this field in St. Petersburg before the first world war; Sikorsky, the great American helicopter pioneer, had in fact built two helicopters in Russia as far back as 1909.

But, after the Revolution, it seems clear that Russia made no important contributions in radar, television, the jet engine, the antibiotics, the man-made fibers, the newer metals, the catalytic cracking of petroleum, the continuous hot strip rolling of steel, silicones or detergents, until others had shown the way and revealed what could be done. [p. 126]

Facts about Earlier Inventions

The twentieth century has, therefore, been much enriched by many inventions attributable to men who have worked under the kind of conditions associated, by long tradition, with the "heroic age" of invention in the nineteenth century. The next step in the inquiry was to look once again at what happened during the last century. Was this an age when uneducated inventors, ignorant of science, working in isolation in garrets and cellars, blindly and unsystematically tried one thing after another and occasionally stumbled by accident upon some thing worth-while but were invariably robbed of their due rewards by predatory financiers?

Such a picture seems to be a travesty of the facts. The links between science and inventive technology were often close. There were many distinguished scientists who were also important inventors: Kelvin, Joule, Davy, Dewar, Hofmann, Bunsen, Babbage, and Playfair. It was frequently true that those inventors who were not formally trained in science showed a high respect for scientific knowledge and an anxiety to acquire it. James Watt spent much of his time with the most distinguished scientists of the day; Charles Parsons was a university graduate and the son of a President of the Royal Society; Trevithick, of the high pressure steam engine, consorted with members of the Royal Society; Cartwright was a Fellow of Magdalen College; Henry Maudsley was a close friend of Faraday; Wheatstone and Morse were professors; W. H. Perkin was a student at the Royal [p. 127] College of Chemistry; Edison made use of the Princeton University laboratories and worked closely with many scientists; C. F. Cross, the inventor of the viscose process, was a consulting chemist. This is to mention only some of the more famous names; the list could be greatly extended of nineteenth century inventors with similar scientific contacts and interests.

No Significant Trend

Many of these men collaborated in ways which, in these days, would be dignified as teamwork. Nor is it the whole truth that invention in the nineteenth century was merely empirical and accidental whilst that of the twentieth century has become scientific. It is far too large a subject to be argued in full here, but it is at least a tenable view that there has been just as much "accidental" invention and discovery in the present century as in the last.

The evidence, therefore, suggests that much of the history of invention written up to the present day, by somewhat distorting the picture of what occurred in the nineteenth century and by then distorting it in the opposite sense for the twentieth century, has exaggerated the fundamental differences between the two periods and has understressed the continuity which runs through the whole story. Perhaps the world, in the matter of technical progress, is not such a new place as it is sometimes made out to be. [p. 128]

In Matters of Policy

It was not the purpose of the inquiry to concern itself with policy; for what is needed, first and foremost, for a better understanding of the forces which influence the flow of innovations is more evidence in a field of study up to now sadly neglected. But the findings have some bearing upon major questions to which industrial societies ought properly to be addressing themselves.

We are in these days caught up in a great boom in industrial research and development which, in its present intensity, may be transient and in some ways artificial. It has been greatly stimulated by defense needs in the past year or two. It has been fostered by what are probably over- sanguine views about the value of science and technology in increasing the profits of individual firms or in raising general standards of living. But even when full allowance has been made for all this, there still remains a strong and newly-found belief that, by taking thought, it ought to be possible to increase the flow of new and useful technical and scientific ideas and to make fuller and more rapid use of them for material improvement.

The policies which, in consequence, are being pressed have already been referred to. The maximum number of people should be given a basic training in technical matters; the different specialists must be encouraged or forced to share their knowledge and ideas in cooperative teams; scientists and technologists should be employed in large research institutions where, secure from [p. 129] the vicissitudes of the life of the independent inventor and provided with ample equipment, guidance can be given to the main lines of their interests.

That, in fact, is what is happening in varying degrees everywhere. In Russia, we are informed, the whole body of scientists and technologists pursue their labors within a framework of purposes laid down by the central authority, benign but all-seeing. But, even in the Western world, the institutionalization of research and invention is going on apace. A steadily increasing proportion of those with scientific and technical training are now employed under conditions in which they are not free to follow their own bents and hunches; they are tied men. In some countries, even the autonomy of the universities is being threatened by their heavy dependence upon ad hoc grants for specified tasks.

Striking a Balance

Are these conditions most favorable to the flow of really new ideas? Or are they the conditions which, while perhaps increasing the number of minor improvements, will finally stifle originality? As John Stuart Mill once put it, the question is "whether our march of intellect be not rather a march towards doing without intellect, and supplying our deficiency of giants by the united efforts of a constantly increasing multitude of dwarfs." In trying to strike a balance here it is worth-while looking at the side of the shield which in these days is so frequently ignored. [p. 130]

Inventors Are a Race Apart

First, men with great powers of originality are in many ways a race apart. Like any other group, of course, they differ between themselves, but on the whole they are constitutionally more averse to cooperation than the rest of us. "I am a horse for single harness," wrote Einstein, "and not cut out for landau or teamwork." This follows because their great gifts arise from the habit of calling everything, even the simplest assumptions, into question; because they are in the grip of inner compulsions which lead them to assume the right of deciding how their special powers should be employed and how best a task should be approached, to resent interference, and to be thrown out of balance by it. Many of them are, by temperament, wholly unsuitable for work in any research institution which is formally organized. And, beyond that, it is even conceivable that, in many cases, their native powers of innovation might be weakened or destroyed by overprolonged scientific or technical education.

Overemphasis on Teamwork

Second, it seems to be possible to exaggerate the virtues of teamwork. Of course, as knowledge grows and forces more specialization upon scientists and technologists, systems of communication between the specialists must be progressively strengthened. And it is true that in some directions in recent years small teams are tending [p. 131] to replace the individual worker, although this is often because the man of original powers is given more assistance for his routine tasks.

It is, however, a far cry from the useful, voluntary collaboration of a few like-minded people to the popular conception of serried ranks of Ph.D.'s moving forward into the scientific unknown as an army guided by some common purpose. The working groups even in a large industrial research laboratory are normally small. The real moving spirits are few and the rest pedestrian, although of course useful, supporters. Quantity cannot make up for quality.

The reasons for the limitation of teamwork are obvious. Teamwork is always a second best. There is no kind of organized, or even voluntary, co-ordination which approaches in effectiveness the synthesizing which goes on in one human mind. Because of the growing specialization, teamwork undoubtedly is inescapable. But it carries with it a countervailing loss of power inevitable when several minds are groping towards mutual understanding. And the loss becomes the greater the larger the team and the less voluntary it is in character.

Nor must it be overlooked that the members of a team must always go the same way; that the strength of a team may be determined by its weakest link; that friction even in small groups of men with original powers of mind is not uncommon; that all cooperation consumes time; and that a large team is essentially a committee and thereby suffers from the habit, common to all committees but especially harmful where research is concerned, [p. 132] of brushing aside hunches and intuitions in favor of ideas that can be more systematically articulated.

Size May Be No Advantage

Third, it is erroneous to suppose that those techniques of large-scale operation and administration which have produced such remarkable results in some branches of industrial manufacture can be applied with equal success to efforts to foster new ideas. The two kinds of organiza tion are subject to quite different laws. In the one case the aim is to achieve smooth, routine, and faultless repetition, in the other to break through the bonds of routine and of accepted ideas. So that large research organizations can perhaps more easily become self-stultifying than any other type of large organization, since in a measure they are trying to organize what is least organizable. The director of a large research institution is confronted with what is perhaps the most subtle task to be found in the whole field of administration; a task which calls for a rare combination of qualities, scientific ability commanding the respect of colleagues, and also an aptitude for organizing a group.

There are many cases to support the conclusion that a large research organization may itself prove to be an obstacle to change. Ideas emanating from outside may be belittled or passed over. "Is not every new discovery a slur upon the sagacity of those who overlooked it?" And it will always be seductive for an established organization to take the smaller risks and more prudent routes when [p. 133] the rare and larger prizes are likely to be found in other directions.

Can the Pace Be Forced?

Here, then, is the dilemma which confronts any community trying to make the best of the native scientific and technical originality of its members. On the one side are the views of those, at the moment it seems in the majority, who conceive of the possibility of forcing the pace, as it was recently put by one research director:

We find the self-directed individual being largely replaced by highly organized team attack in which we employ many people who, if left entirely to their own devices, might not really be research-minded. In other words, we hire people to be curious as a group . . . we are undertaking to create research capability by the sheer pressure of money . . . .

On the other hand are the fears of those, at present much in the minority, who suspect that such forcing tactics will mean that we may frustrate the awkward, lonely, inquiring, critical individuals who, to judge by past experience, have so much to give but can so easily be impeded. To pose the question in concrete form: the last time that a new form of propulsion, the jet engine, came to be conceived it was pressed forward by individual workers who had to meet frustrations and indifference, even resistance, on the part of established institutions. We are, presumably, not at the end of such innovations; there may be other new forms of motive power to come. [p. 134]

And if, on some future occasion, the initiative comes in much the same way, do we resign ourselves to the idea that it must once again run the gauntlet of resistances from established interests? Are we further prepared to resign ourselves to the thought that, as research becomes more highly organized and the subject of institutional effort, any outside inventor will in the future have even less chance than in the past to force his ideas upon reluctant authority?

It may be that there are no clear-cut answers to such weighty questions. But the study of the inventions of the twentieth century would seem to support the following generalizations. Knowledge about innovation is so slender that it is almost an impertinence to speculate concerning the conditions and institutions which may foster or destroy it. But, in seeking to provide a social framework conducive to innovation, there would seem to be great virtues in eclecticism. If past experience is anything to judge by, crucial discoveries may spring up at practically any point and at any time.

As contrasted with the ideal ways of organizing effort in other fields, what is needed for maximizing the flow of ideas is plenty of overlapping, healthy duplication of efforts, lots of the so-called wastes of competition, and all the vigorous untidiness so foreign to the planners who like to be sure of the future. 


1. Jewkes, J., Sawers, D., and Stillerman, R. The Sources of Invention. London: Macmillan, Jan. 1958. Available in the U.S. through St. Martin's Press, Inc., 108 Park Ave., New York 17, N. Y. $6.75.

2. Acrylic Fibres, Air Conditioning, Automatic Transmissions, Bakelite, Ball-point Pen, Catalytic Cracking of Petroleum, Cellophane, Cellophane Tape, Chromium Plating, Cinerama, Continuous Casting of Steel, Continuous Hot Strip Rolling, Cotton Picker, Crease-Resisting Fabrics, Cyclotron, DDT, Diesel-Electric Railway Traction, Domestic Gas Refrigeration, Duco Lacquers, Electric Precipitation, Electron Microscope, Fluorescent Lighting, Freon Refrigerants, Gyro-Compass, Hardening of Liquid Fats, Helicopter, Insulin, Jet Engine, Kodachrome, Krilitun, Long-Playing Record, Magnetic Recording, Methyl Methacrylate Polymers, Modem Artificial Lighting, Neoprene, Nylon and Perlon, Penicillin, "Polaroid" Land Camera, Polyethylene, Power Steering, Quick Freezing, Radar, Radio, Rockets, Safety Razor, Self-winding Wrist Watch, Shell Molding, Silicones, Stainless Steels, Streptomycin, Sulzer Loom, Synthetic Detergents, Synthetic Light Polariser, Television, "Terylene" Polyester Fibre, Tetraethyl Lead, Titanium, Transistor, Tungsten Carbide, Xerography, Zip Fastener. [p. 135]


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