Invention (device or process)
Invention (device or process), creation of new devices, objects, ideas, or procedures useful in accomplishing human objectives. The process of invention is invariably preceded by one or more discoveries that help the inventor solve the problem at hand. A discovery may be accidental, such as the discovery of X rays by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen while he was experimenting with cathode rays, or induced, such as the invention of the lightning rod by Benjamin Franklin after he proved that lightning is an electrical phenomenon.
In common usage the term invention is applied only to the production of new materials or operable devices, and the term inventor is applied to a person who has produced a new device or material. Less frequently, the term invention is applied to a new procedure; thus a person may be said to have invented a new game or a new system of accounting. Under strict definition, however, anything produced by humans that is new and unique is an invention; this definition was recognized by Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave the title Inventions to a series of his short keyboard compositions.
In most countries, certain classes of inventions are legally recognized, and their use is temporarily restricted to the control of the inventor. In the United States, any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or material, or any new and useful improvement of these, may be protected by patent; written material, music, paintings, sculpture, and photographs may be protected by copyright. The protection afforded by this legal recognition is limited; in many cases, if a person alters an invention and thereby improves or changes it, that person may be eligible for a new patent or copyright. Patent and copyright laws do not provide coverage for all inventions. Many processes and ideas lacking clear-cut characteristics, such as psychological concepts useful in advertising, cannot be legally protected.
Restricted to Homo sapiens and perhaps a few of the higher animals, inventiveness implies a continued ability to adapt discoveries to use. Many lower animals have, at some time in the history of their species, acquired the ability to produce complicated devices and have continued this ability from generation to generation. In humans, however, the development of construction methods is preceded and followed by discoveries of natural laws that facilitate the construction. The pattern of discovery followed by invention followed by further discovery, which results in continual development of new concepts, procedures, and devices, is characteristic of the inventiveness of the human species.
Seals and stamps have been used to close agreements, record transactions, and authorize documents for thousands of years. One of the earliest forms of printing, seals consisted of a raised or carved design in a rock that was pressed into wet clay or wax to create a distinctive and reproducible mark. This bull seal came from India, and is considered typical of the era between 2300 and 1750 bc.
The earliest artifacts show evidence of human inventiveness. The names of the great archaeological ages—the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age—are derived from the inventive use of stone and metal implements (see Archaeology). Early stone implements were crude, but the purposes they served—protection and food gathering—were instrumental in humans' growing domination of the earth. Many of the most significant inventions and inventive developments occurred before the period covered by written history. These include the invention of crude tools, the development of speech, the cultivation of plants and domestication of animals, the development of building techniques, the ability to produce and control fire, the ability to make pottery, the development of simple political systems, and the invention of the wheel.
Ancient Flint Tools
Flint was widely used by early people. The stone is relatively common and produces sharp edges when fractured, making it ideal for tools and weapons. The adzes (shown left and middle) were used for shaping wood and the sickle (shown right) was used in harvesting during the late Stone Age. Note: The wooden handles are reproductions.
The period of recorded history began with the invention of writing, and writing as a means of mass communication became important with the invention of movable type in the 15th century. Invention proceeded steadily throughout the period of written history, but since the advent of printed books, people all over the world have been able to obtain records of the discoveries of the past for use as a basis for further discoveries and inventions.
THE MACHINE AGE
Inventor with Robot
An inventor plays a duet with his robotic creation, Wabot-2, at the Tokyo Exposition. Building this kind of robot is a challenging task because the dexterity of the human hand is perhaps the most difficult function to recreate mechanically. Although Wabot-2’s performance may not be emotional, with an electronic scanning eye and quality components, the technical accuracy will be extremely high.
The machine age, which began with the Industrial Revolution and continues to this day, developed from a group of inventions, of which the most important include the use of fossil fuels such as coal as sources of energy, the improvement of metallurgical processes (especially of steel and aluminum), the development of electricity and electronics, the invention of the internal-combustion engine, and the use of metal and cement in construction work. Current developments in the use of energy promise to introduce a new age in human inventiveness.
Early inventors were usually isolated and unable to support themselves through their inventions. In some cases, although two individuals working independently achieved the same innovation simultaneously, only one was recognized for the discovery. For example, the American inventors Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell applied for a patent on the telephone on the same day. Credit for the discovery of the calculus was fought for bitterly by the English scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Today most modern inventions and discoveries take place in large research organizations supported by universities, government agencies, private industries, or privately endowed foundations. Because of this, ascribing any single invention to a specific person has become difficult. Researchers in modern laboratories are often members of a project; the planning and development of the project is usually the work of many individuals. The atomic bomb, for example, was developed during World War II (1939-1945) under the guidance of a small group of leading scientists of many nationalities who directed a much larger group of scientists and technicians, most of whom were unaware of the purpose of the project (see Nuclear Weapons). Another example of collective effort in producing an important invention is the development of the electronic digital computer, a device essential to storing, retrieving, and manipulating vast amounts of information.