What are some secrets of truly creative thinking? Who better to ask than Hall of Fame inventors? That’s exactly what I did last month when I was able to speak with several 2014 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, or NIHF, as well as past inductees. As I wrote back in April, NIHF honors the greatest inventive minds in history and is a partnership of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the innovative nonprofit Invent Now. I was present not just for the induction but for the opening of a completely remade museum–The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum–which truly honors these life-changing innovators. (More on the museum below.)
I will never be a Hall of Fame inventor, but one thing I do know is that creative thinking is not bound by application. In other words, the secret sauce of creative thinking that produces a great painting or opera is little different than that which leads to a groundbreaking new drug or consumer electronics device. So let’s learn together some secrets of creative thinking from great inventors.
- Keep it simple: Ernest Hemingway’s prose contains few extraneous words. Steve Jobs’ designs contained few extraneous interfaces. And 2014 Inductee Ashok Gadgil‘s water disinfection device contains few if any extraneous parts. This is critical, he told me, because while we have long known how to rid contaminated water of disease-killing pathogens, the devices well-intentioned developed countries were providing impoverished villages in developing nations would require maintenance that it was unreasonable to expect the villagers to perform. “You don’t have a Phillips screwdriver in these villages,” he told me, “and you certainly don’t have an Ace Hardware.” So Gadgil–who growing up in Mumbai knew the horror that contaminated water could bring–worked to develop a product that had no moving parts, was extremely lightweight, could serve as many as 1,500 people, and because it uses less electricity than a light bulb could be powered by wind or solar or even a bicycle. Gadgil’s creative genius was in stripping away extraneous details and reducing his invention to beautiful simplicity.
Rethink what’s possible: Sometimes creative thinking doesn’t involve an improvement on an existing solution, but solving a problem many assumed wasn’t solvable. That’s what 2013 Inductee Garrett Brown did. To talk with Brown is to experience someone whose mind seems in constant motion, which is exactly what his Steadicam is all about. Brown observed that because motion picture cameras were too heavy and bulky to be carried while filming, movie viewers were being denied the ability to follow a subject through the action. Others in Hollywood did not see this absence because they assumed a solution wasn’t possible. Brown disagreed, and created a body-mounted stabilization device that absorbs motion. Brown didn’t just invent the stabilization camera, he also served as the cameraman, giving us iconic scenes such as Rocky’s run through Philadelphia. Brown is still inventing; he showed some of us his latest invention, a pocket-sized stabilization device that folds out to hold your smartphone. He thus plans to put in our hands the power of today’s Hollywood.
- Don’t limit your thinking: As a young engineer at Kodak in 1974, 2011 inductee Steve Sasson was asked to spend some time with something called a charge-coupled device to see if it could help cameras sense an image. He took it a step further, envisioning a photograph that could be taken not on film–Kodak’s bread and butter–but purely in pixels. A year later he had invented the first digital camera, and demonstrated his technology by photographing his co-workers at a resolution we would now call 0.1 megapixels. Of course many of us know how this ended. The thinking of Sasson’s employer was more limited–focused on existing profit from film rather than future profit from digital photography–and the company is no longer in business. Sasson is remarkably humble in person; you would never realize you were speaking to someone who completely upended an industry and changed the way we interact with the world. But of course Sasson’s breakthrough is something we carry around with us every day, in that smartphone we soon will be clipping into Garrett Brown’s portable Steadicam.
Think metaphorically: 2014 inductee Frances Arnold is a creator with a small “c,” but in many ways her innovation involves playing the role of a “creator” with a capital C. That is because this remarkable engineer decided to engage in something called “directed evolution.” Scientists have long generated artificially constructed proteins to do everything from deliver drugs to break down oil spills. Arnold realized nature already had a pretty good way of honing in on the characteristics needed to perform tasks–evolution–and she found a way to apply that in rapid motion to protein development. Also a winner of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the first woman to win the coveted Draper Prize, Arnold now is applying her protein-development strategy to solving the greatest environmental challenges our planet faces, including alternative energy solutions. Speaking of energy, Arnold is bursting with it–she invited some of us to walk with her to a dinner we were attending rather than ride in the provided shuttle bus–and is also what I like to call a whole-brain thinker. As she told The Los Angeles Times, “The code of life is like a Beethoven symphony. We have not yet learned how to write music like that. But evolution does it very well. I am learning how to use evolution to compose new music.“
- Be persistent: The patent is for “stereolithography.” The technology is known in geek circles as “additive manufacturing.” We know it as “3D printing,” and the inventor is 2014 inductee Charles Hull. A warm and generous man–he gave everyone attending the induction dinner 3D candies that tasted almost as good as they looked–he also is a classic example of how overnight successes actually involve a lot of nights and a lot of failures. Like Sasson, he was encouraged by his employer to play around with an idea he had–in this case using ultraviolet light to “print” manufacturing prototypes–but unlike Sasson, he was still expected to do his day job. So Hull spent nights and weekends in his basement experimenting. He needed a material that could be soft enough to be run through his “printer” onto his growing “printout” but would harden quickly enough and be strong enough to be usable. One night he finally achieved it with a form of photopolymer, and dragged his pajama-clad wife out of bed to see the result.
There are more than 500 NIHF inductees. You can learn about each and every one of them online or at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, housed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. At the museum re-opening ceremony last month, each of the individuals mentioned above–as well as many other past and present inductees–placed their names on their corresponding icon in the Gallery of Icons. Kiosks to the left and right of the Gallery allow you to learn more about each and every inductee, and interactive exhibits offer insight on how creative minds have changed our lives for the better.
I referred above to Chuck Hull’s day job; well, part of my day job is working with the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum. So if you plan to visit, let me know and I’ll greet you!