Innovation or Invention?

Posted: October 30, 2011 by John Clarkin in Innovation, Technology

Hardly a week goes by without someone talking about innovation and innovative ways of solving problems.  There are Innovation Summits, Innovation blogs, and countless ad campaigns by companies who claim to be innovative.  But what does the word innovation mean?  Considering the recent death of Steve Jobs, widely recognized as one of the greatest innovators of our time, it might be worth exploring what innovation is and what it isn’t.

I think Webster’s dictionary has it wrong.  Look up the word “innovation” and the definition states “the introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.”  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the synonyms for innovation is “invention.”  There is an important difference between an invention and an innovation, a difference that is often overlooked.

According to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, patents are issued for inventions that are new, non-obvious, and useful.  An example of a product that has been granted patent protection in the United States is Thomas Cane’s “Santa Claus Detector” (issued 6/4/1996, patent #5523741).  This futuristic stocking, designed to be hung near a chimney, has a built-in alarm that triggers when presents are placed inside.  Another example is George and Charlotte Blonsky’s “Child Birth Centrifuge (issued 11/1963, patent #3216423).  This device was designed to ease the childbirth experience by clamping the mother in labor in a rotating device, similar to those used in astronaut training, using centrifugal force to expedite the process.  Joe Armstrong’s “Self Spanking Machine” (issued 9/25/2001, patent # 6293874) has four rotating boots, a hand crank that requires no external power, and allows users limitless amounts of posterior pleasure.  Clearly these inventions and countless other patented items are new and useful, at least in the minds of those in the U.S. Patent Office.   The difference between inventions and innovations becomes clear when we look at how many of these inventions were actually purchased by someone.

To many, Steve Jobs exemplified innovation.  From the first garage-built computer he built with “Woz” to the iPhone, Pod, and Pad, the company he led changed the way people interact with technology.   In a blog devoted to the topic of innovation, a writer offered that he would describe Steve Jobs as a great entrepreneur, not a great innovator.  The distinction he made is subtle, but important: Innovators create value, entrepreneurs help people access and translate that value into their life. Entrepreneurs are also really good at helping innovators commercialize things and turn inventions into innovations.

The creation of value and the translation of that value into the lives of others is what’s missing from Blonsky’s Centrifuge and the Self-Spanking machine, as well as thousands of other patents that never made it to the marketplace.  Need more evidence?  There are over 4,000 patents issued on mousetraps, and each year more than 400 new applications for patents on the device are received.  How many different kinds do you see in stores?  Inventions are deemed successful by someone in an office in Washington, while successful innovations are measured in terms of customers.  Invention and innovation are not synonyms.  Webster got it wrong.

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