There is no right way to invent something. Some people take a slow, methodical route testing theory after theory before ever working with their hands. Some go straight for the supplies and start tinkering. Still, others, and a great majority of inventors, use a combination of the two. There really isn’t a magic ratio for what degree of theory versus what degree of experimentation you use is dependent on the project at hand, the knowledge you have, the prior research you’ve done, and what stage of the R&D cycle you’re on.
The first part is easy to answer. The second part, well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
Approach your invention your way
There are two main ways to approach the inventive process, the “Edisonian” approach and the theoretical approach. There is also a more recently recognized type of approach called the interdisciplinary approach, which you might find equally useful. We’ll go over them each in turn.
It’s all theory any way.
When you study something completely, you know how it works and how it ought to work under given conditions. The theoretical approach employs the use of pen and paper to prove this concept with math, physics, intuition, and a lot of research to back it up. The theoretical work is done on paper. Often times experimental work follows, then the theoretical work is refined as needed to reflect experimentation.
Theoretical work, in practise, is used to give an idea of what works and what doesn’t work. It eliminates a good deal of frustration when it comes to experimental work because it gives you a ballpark to aim for. In reality, theoretical work is rarely found on its own. One can use experiments, models, and surveys to collect data and refine their thoughts.
What happens if I try this?
The Edisonian approach is often called the “hunt and try” or “guess and check” method. The concept behind the idea is to start with what you know (theory), and move very quickly to the experimental portion of the work. There is a lot of experimentation in this approach to inventing, and one that works for some better than a lot of theory work. A great example of this can be found in Dyson’s book Against the Odds. Dyson notes that when he first “discovers” that his Hoover Jr. didn’t perform well, he took the bag out to see if that was the issue. And, while he made a mess in his kitchen, he knew the problem was the bag, not the vacuum. Thus, he focused his efforts (and some might say obsession) on that particular point.
The Edisonian approach is often combined with theory for larger concepts to help narrow down the field. However, it’s strength lies in figuring out differences between two things that reach the same conclusion. For example, a recent Insanitek experiment tried to understand the reason behind soaking luffas before peeling the skin off and what happens if you don’t. In this rather simple experiment three different methods to reach the same conclusion were tried. This is trial and error. You try something, observe the results and then try something else until you reach the best possible conclusion.
Reality lies in the middle
As like many things in life, reality is neither one nor the other, but rather somewhere in the middle. In one project you may use mostly theory, the next mostly trial and error. You may switch back and forth between them often in the same project. This is, after all, your inventive process.
Your homework is to do a little light reading on the history of science and technology:
The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder — a story about 4 men that brought about our modern scientific revolution at the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Invention – Enhancing inventiveness for quality of life, competitiveness, and sustainability (2004) Report from the Committee for the Study of Invention
The first is a good book that can get your creative juices going, while the second is a report if you’re more for modern facts than a good history. See you in two weeks when we start working on the R&D cycle!
Next: Finding a problem