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An invention is a new composition, device, or process. Some inventions are based on pre-existing models or ideas and others are radical breakthroughs. Inventions can extend the boundaries of human knowledge or experience.

An invention that is novel and not obvious to those who are skilled in the same field may be able to obtain the legal protection of a patent. There is also a cultural invention which is an innovative set of useful social behaviors adopted by people and passed on to others.


Inventing is a highly creative process. An open curious mind enables one to see beyond what is known. Inventors think outside of the box. "Hell, there are no rules here — we're trying to accomplish something new". (Thomas A. Edison) Seeing a new possibility, a new connection or relationship can spark an invention. Inventive thinking frequently involves combining elements from different realms that would not normally be put together. Sometimes inventors skip over the boundaries between distinctly separate territories or fields. Ways of thinking, materials, processes or tools from one realm are used as no one else has imagined in a different realm. This is how Cubism, one of the most revolutionary innovations in art was came about. Taking ideas from primitive culture, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque reinvented art in the civilized world.

Play can lead to invention. Childhood curiosity, experimentation and imagination can develop one's play instinct--an inner need according to Carl Jung. Inventors feel the need to play with things that interest them, to explore, and this internal drive brings about novel creations. Inventing comes straight from the heart, its a passion. "I never did a day's work in my life, it was all fun". Thomas A. Edison. Inventing can also be an obsession.

To invent is to see anew. "To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance". "Imagination is more important than knowledge". Albert Einstein Inventors often envision a new idea, seeing it in their mind's eye. New ideas can arise when the conscious mind turns away from the subject or problem; or when the focus is on something else; or even while relaxing or sleeping. A novel idea may come in a flash - Eureka! For example, after years of working to figure out the general theory of relativity, the solution came to Einstein suddenly in a dream "like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision".

Inventing also takes insight. It may begin with questions, doubt or a hunch. It may begin by recognizing that something unusual or accidental may be useful or that it could open a new avenue for exploration. For example, the odd metallic color of plastic made by accidentally adding a thousand times too much catalyst led scientists to explore its metal-like properties, inventing electrically conductive plastic and light emitting plastic-—an invention that won the Nobel Prize in 2000 and has led to innovative lighting, display screens, wallpaper and much more (see conductive polymer, and organic light-emitting diode or PLED).

Inventing is often an exploratory process, full of risk, with an outcome that is uncertain or unknown. There are failures as well as successes. "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" Einstein Inspiration can start the process, but no matter how complete the initial idea, inventions typically have to be developed. Inventors believe in their ideas and they do not give up in the face of one or many failures. They are often famous for their perseverance, confidence and passion--for "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward". Edison.

Inventors want to satisfy a need, they try to solve a problem or make something better, by asking "what if . . . .?" or, "wouldn't it be great if . . . ?" Inventors may, for example, try to improve something by making it more effective, healthier, faster, more efficient, easier to use, serve more purposes, longer lasting, cheaper, more ecologically friendly, or aesthetically different, e.g., lighter weight, more ergonomic, structurally different, with new light or color properties, etc. Or an entirely new invention may be created such as the Internet, email, the telephone or electric light. Necessity may be the mother of invention, or invention may be its own reward. Nobody needed a phonograph before Edision invented it, the need for it developed afterwards. Likewise, few ever imagined the telephone or the airplane prior to their invention, but many people cannot live without these inventions now.

The idea for an invention may be developed on paper or on a computer, by writing or drawing, by trial and error, by making models, by experimenting, by testing and/or by making the invention in its whole form. As the dialogue between Picasso and Braque brought about Cubism, collaboration has spawned many inventions. Brainstorming can spark new ideas. Collaborative creative processes are frequently used by designers, architects and scientists. Co-inventors are frequently named on patents. Now it is easier than ever for people in different locations to collaborate. Many inventors keep records of their working process - notebooks, photos, etc., including Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein. In the process of developing an invention, the initial idea may change. The invention may become simpler, more practical, it may expand, or it may even morph into something totally different. Working on one invention can lead to others too. There is only one country in the world that will grant patent rights for an invention that continues part of an invention in a previously filed patent--the United States.

The creation of an invention and its use can be effected by practical considerations. Some inventions are not created in the order that enables them to be most useful. For example, the parachute was invented before powered flight. There are inventions that are too expensive to produce and inventions that require scientific advancements that have not yet occurred. These barriers can erode or disappear as the economic situation changes or as science develops. But history shows that turning an invention that is only an idea into reality can take considerable time, even centuries as demonstrated by inventions originally conceived by Leonardo da Vinci which are now in physical form and commonplace in our lives. Interestingly, some invention that exists as only an idea and has never been made in reality can obtain patent protection.

An invention can serve many purposes, these purposes might differ significantly and they may change over time. An invention or a further developed version of it may serve purposes never envisioned by its original inventor(s) or even by others living at the time of its original invention. As an example, consider all the kinds of plastic developed, their innumerable uses, and the tremendous growth this material invention is still undergoing today.

Artistic invention

Invention has a long and important history in the arts. Inventive thinking has always played a vital role in the creative process. While some inventions in the arts are patentable, others are not because they cannot fulfill the strict requirements governments have established for granting them. (see patent).

Art, design and architecture

"A man paints with his brains and not with his hands". Michelangelo

Art is continuously reinvented. Many artists, designers, and architects think like inventors. As they create, they may: explore beyond that which is known or obvious, push against barriers, change or discard conventions, and/or break into new territory. Breaking the rules became the most valued attribute in art during the 20th century, with the highest acclaim going to conceptual innovation which frequently involved the invention of new genres. For the first time the idea within the artwork was unmistakably more important than the tangible art object. All kinds of artists have been inventing throughout history, and among their inventions are important contributions to visual art and other fields.

Some visual artists like Picasso become inventors in the process of creating art. Inventions by other artists are separate from their art, such as the scientific inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. Some inventions in visual art employ prior developments in science or technology. For example, Picasso and Julio Gonzalez used welding to invent a new kind of sculpture, the form of which could be more open to light and air, and more recently, computer software has enabled an explosion of invention in visual art, including the invention of computer art, and invention in photography, film, architecture and design. Like the invention of welded sculpture, other inventions in art are new art forms, for example, the collage and the construction invented by Picasso, the Readymade invented by Marcel Duchamp, the mobile invented by Alexander Calder, the combine invented by Robert Rauschenberg, and the shaped painting invented by Frank Stella. Art has been reinvented by developing new processes of creation. For example, Jackson Pollock invented an entirely new form of painting and a new kind of abstraction by dripping, pouring, splashing and splattering paint onto unstretched canvas laying on the floor. A number of art movements were inventions often created collaboratively, such as Cubism invented by Picasso and Braque. Substantial inventions in art, design and architecture were made possible by inventions and improvements in the tools of the trade. The invention of Impressionist painting, for example, was possible because the prior invention of collapsible, resealable metal paint tubes facilitated spontaneous painting outdoors. Inventions originally created in the form of artwork can also develop other uses, as Alexander Calder's mobile is commonly used over babies' cribs today. Funds generated from patents on inventions in art, design and architecture can support the realization of the invention or other creative work. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's 1879 patent on the Statue of Libertymarker helped fund the statue currently in New York harbor because it covered small replicas..

Among other artists, designers and architects who are or were inventors are: Filippo Brunelleschi, Le Corbusier, Naum Gabo, Frederick Hart, Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Buckminster Fuller, Man Ray, Yves Klein, Henry N. Cobb, I. M. Pei, Kenneth Snelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Chuck Hoberman and Ingo Maurer. Some of their inventions have been patented. Others might have fulfilled the requirements of a patent, like the Cubist image. There are also inventions in visual art that do not fit into the requirements of a patent. Examples are inventions that cannot be differentiated from that which has already existed clearly enough for approval by government patent offices, such as Duchamp's Readymade and other conceptual works. Invention whose inventor or inventors are not known cannot be patented, such as the invention of abstract art or abstract painting, oil painting, Process Art, Installation art and Light Art. Also, when it cannot or has not been determined whether something was a first in human history or not, there may not be a patentable invention even though it may be considered an invention in the realm of art. For example, Picasso is credited with inventing collage though this probably was done earlier in a culture outside of the western world.

Inventions in the visual arts that may be patentable might be new materials or mediums, new kinds of images, new processes, novel designs, or they may be a combination of these. Inventions by Filippo Brunelleschi, Frederick Hart, Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Chuck Hoberman and others received patents. The color, International Klein Blue invented by Yves Klein was patented in 1960 and used two years later in his sculpture. Inventions by Kenneth Snelson which are crucial to his sculptures are patented. R. Buckminster Fuller's famous geodesic dome is covered in one of his 28 US patents (see them all at Ingo Maurer known for his lighting design has a series of patents on inventions in these works. Many inventions created collaboratively by designers at IDEO Inc. have been patented. Countless other examples can easily be found by searching patents at the websites of the Patent Offices of various countries, such as Inventions in design can be protected in a special kind of patent called a "design patent". The first design patent was granted in 1842 to George Bruce for a new font. See a database of patents in the arts at See images and text from some patents in the arts at


Music has been expanded by invention over the course of thousands of years. The earliest documented performance with an electrically amplified guitar was in 1932, by guitarist and bandleader Gage Brewer.


New written styles emerge through time. With this, as with many other arts, it is hard to distinguish invention from simply picking the most pleasurable or desired qualities of existing artforms and art trends.

Performing arts

The value of invention in acting was noted by Paul Newman when discussing his reasons for retiring, "You start to lose your memory, your confidence, your invention. So that's pretty much a closed book for me". Work by Martha Graham and many other artists is known for invention. Michael Jackson invented the moon walk. He also patented a device that enabled him to seem to defy gravity when leaning forward which he used in a dance performance (see US Patent No. 5,255,452).


Inventions get out into the world in different ways. Some are sold, licensed or given away as products or services. Simply exhibiting visual art, playing music or having a performance gets many artistic inventions out into the world. Believing in the success of an invention can involve risk, so it can be difficult to obtain support and funding. Grants, inventor associations, clubs and business incubators can provide the mentoring, skills and resources some inventors need. Success at getting an invention out into the world often requires passion for it and good entrepreneural skills.

In economic theory, inventions are one of the chief examples of "positive externalities", a beneficial side-effect that falls on those outside a transaction or activity. One of the central concepts of economics is that externalities should be internalized--unless some of the benefits of this positive externality can be captured by the parties, the parties will be under-rewarded for their inventions, and systematic under-rewarding will lead to under-investment in activities that lead to inventions. The patent system captures those positive externalities for the inventor or other patent owner, so that the economy as a whole will invest a more-closely-optimum amount of resources in the process of invention.

Invention and innovation

In the social sciences, an innovation is anything new to a culture, whether it has been adopted or not. The theory for adoption (or non-adoption) of an innovation, called diffusion of innovations, considers the likelihood that an innovation will ever be adopted and the taxonomy of persons likely to adopt it or spur its adoption. This theory was first put forth by Everett Rogers. Gabriel Tarde also dealt with the adoption of innovations in his Laws of Imitation.

In business, innovation can be easily distinguished from invention. Invention is the conversion of cash into ideas. Innovation is the conversion of ideas into cash. This is best described by comparing Thomas Edison with Nikola Tesla. Thomas Edison was as innovator because he made money from his ideas. Nikola Tesla was an inventor. Tesla spent money to create his inventions but was unable to monetize them.


  • "Necessity is the mother of invention". -Addison Altholz
  • "Every herd of wild cattle has its leaders, its influential heads". Gabriel Tarde
  • "The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart". Albert Einstein
  • "Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there". Richard Feynman
  • "For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them". Richard Feynman
  • "What I cannot create, I do not understand". Richard Feynman
  • "We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning". Richard Feynman
  • "When most people think that everything is working normally, an inventor will hone in on the absurdity, the utter foolishness of the way everyone seems to accept the world as it is. Others won’t even see what’s wrong-until the inventor stumbles across it. By isolating a problem in a new way, by redefining it, by focusing it does to something more specific than meets the average eye, the inventor constructs a new possibility where none was though to have existed". Evan I. Schwartz
  • "Wherever smart people work, doors are unlocked". Steve Wozniak
  • "Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure". Thomas A. Edison

See also



  • Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, Harper & Row, 1989. ISBN 0-06-015612-0
  • De Bono, Edward, "Eureka! An Illustrated History of Inventions from the Wheel to the Computer", Thames & Hudson, 1974.
  • Gowlett, John. Ascent to Civilization, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992. ISBN 0-07-544312-0
  • Platt, Richard, "Eureka!: Great Inventions and How They Happened", 2003.
  • Patenting Art and Entertainment by Gregory Aharonian and Richard Stim (2004)

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