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Are There Any Real Inventors Left?

Soulskill posted about a year and a half ago | from the self-sealing-stembolt dept.

Technology 417

An anonymous reader writes "The BBC is running a story about invention and innovation, suggesting that there have been no truly new inventions in a long time. 'Consumers are presented with an "invention illusion," which is really little more than a marketing tool to give the impression of "breakthrough" products. This is a difficult cycle to break, particularly with the media's appetite for sensational stories, and it is hampering opportunities for credible companies without sexy stories. It also means that many entrepreneurs are looking for innovation in the wrong places and pursuing new product design ineffectively.' It leads to the question: what are the most recent things you can think of that have been actual, new inventions? Or has the high-tech revolution just been iterative innovation?"

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Sham-Wow (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760203)

/smug

iterative innovation (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760205)

Nearly all innovation is iterative. It has always been that way, so I've been told.

Re:iterative innovation (5, Insightful)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760263)

Indeed. Standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that.

I think what TFA refers to by "true invention" is a big enough, or sudden enough iterative innovation.

In this day and age, all scientists and innovators talk to each other all the time, and are aware of each other's work. There is no guy working for years in secrecy in his shed anymore. Hence the perceived - but false - lack of "true invention".

Re:iterative innovation (5, Insightful)

Dunbal (464142) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760325)

I think what TFA refers to by "true invention" is a big enough, or sudden enough iterative innovation.

And I think it just shows a complete lack of knowledge on behalf of the writer, since there are many industries full of completely new inventions - from pharmaceutical research to medicine to the defense industry. Some of these have broken new ground. Of course since they are also highly specialized areas, you won't know about them unless you're in the field(s). But just because no one has invented the light sabre doesn't mean invention isn't happening.

Re:iterative innovation (4, Insightful)

samkass (174571) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760657)

Seriously, the processor powering the computer most are using to read the statement about the lack of invention is the result of dozens of fundamental discoveries and inventions over the last decade.

Re:iterative innovation (5, Insightful)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760755)

Those little, academic inventions are what the author is calling "not real invension." He wants the good ol' days back when an inventor pulled back the tarp over the first powered airplane or horseless carriage and wowed everyone with something completely new. But he's not getting them back, because:

1. Diminishing returns, part of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" effect: As time goes on, invention requires more advanced equipment, more investment, more education. The Wright Brothers could put together everything they needed to build their powered aircraft* in a bicycle shop from materials that could mostly be bought at a hardware store and the equivalent of maybe BSc-level education at most, with the equivalent of what today would be considered an upper-middle class hobby budget. These days you need supercomputers, research hospitals, giant particle colliders, a very solid PhD-level education and many millions of dollars as a bare minimum to push the boundaries.

2. IP laws: They've turned the world of invention from a Wild West frontier to an Orwellian police state within the last century. Act surprised everyone.

*I know, they were not really the first. [wikipedia.org]

Re:iterative innovation (3, Insightful)

RoboJ1M (992925) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760411)

True.

But I saw a programme on the BBC called geniuses of invention.
It was about the geniuses that gave us the power station, and mighty minds they were, making incredible metal leaps off of the knowledge of the day.
So even Watt and Faraday built on the work of others.

Then it cuts to today, the Drax Power Station. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drax_power_station [wikipedia.org]

Where, in 2013, we BURN COAL TO DRIVE A STEAM ENGINE.

I know I'm being facetious but it seems a shame that nearly 200 years later we haven't really moved on at all.
It's probably down to the fact that we've needed a 100 years of work first in chemistry, physics and materials science before we can even consider moving beyond burning stuff.

Our large power generation is still based off of Newton's world, not, erm, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Jordan, Pauli, Fermi, Schrodinger, Dirac, de Broglie and Bose's.

We tried fission, that's not working out too well.
The French have dug a big hole: http://stream.iter.org/cs-webcam1.swf [iter.org]
Soon they will shovel some fusion into it.

Re:iterative innovation (2)

h4rr4r (612664) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760451)

Not working out to well?
That fission seems to be powering my computer just fine. What part of it is not working out?

If you want to say there have been problems, that is true, but for the most part it works out. Coal mining kills far more. Not to even mention the toxic pools the coal plants have to store their waste. That stuff stays toxic forever by the way.

Re:iterative innovation (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760705)

Fusion still plans to drive steam turbines on any practical scale so far. The complain that something is bad or needs to be replaced because it is old is pretty meaningless... Complaints should be about and problems or inefficiencies an invention has, which is true that steam turbines could be made more efficient, but not so obvious that there are simple, practical replaces for those situations and scales. Otherwise, might was well complain we still use wheels everywhere.

Re:iterative innovation (1)

tilante (2547392) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760779)

Don't forget - solar and wind power are moving up. Wind generates 10% or more of the electricity in five US states now (http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights27), and the amount of power being generated by wind worldwide grew by 20% from 2010 to 2011 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_by_country). Solar power usage is also growing quickly, with world solar production increasing by 75% from 2010 to 2011. (And the photoelectric effect is not from 'Newton's World'.) Granted, they've both been around at a low scale for a long time, but it's recent inventions that are causing them to now be useful on a large scale.

Part of it is the effect of living through something. It's easy to imagine the difference in pre-electricity and post-electricity cities... but remember, even in developed countries, it took decades to get electricity everywhere (The first commercial power plant in the US was established in 1882 - but it wasn't until 1917 that the first long-distance high-voltage transmission line was put into service). Indeed, it's estimated that 25% of the world's population still doesn't have access to electrical power. Solar and wind are helping to change that, since they can operate on a small scale much more effectively than nuclear, coal, or natural gas generation. We're now living through the rise of solar and wind power - and it will probably take decades, just like the rise of coal power plants did.

Re:iterative innovation (3, Insightful)

RadioElectric (1060098) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760433)

I think what is frequently seen as a "breakthrough invention" is actually judged from an instrumental perspective. Does the thing you've created either satisfy a recognised need (frequently these "inventions" are called "discoveries"), or does it create a new need (for example, that for instantaneous voice communication over long distances)? I think one of the driving factors is that in the rich parts of the developed western world there aren't many long-standing needs left to be met. New things have come along but they require more separate people and technologies involved to make them work. The ability to be continuously connected to an all-pervading mobile internet service is, I think, the latest of these invented "needs".

Re:iterative innovation (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760617)

I'm a programmer who has been literally working in my shed for the last two and a half years on a new form of social networking protocol, which I believe is very innovative.

Re:iterative innovation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760619)

The problem is that we know too much. Over time, most iterative middle steps are forgotten and only some selected achievements are remembered. These will become the breakthrough inventions of the early 21-st century, but it takes some time and one cannot tell now which exact steps happen to be remembered.

Re:iterative innovation (2)

RevWaldo (1186281) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760375)

True that. Even the incandescent light bulb was an idea that had been floating around for some time; Edison's credit was making a practical version, mainly through brute force trial and error with a team of assistants.

.

Semiconductor Industry (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760213)

Yes look at semiconductor industry and you should be impressed with the innovations there. You can call them engineering or whatever you prefer. But ability to scale 5 orders of magnitude in physical dimension is no easy feet.

Re:Semiconductor Industry (2, Funny)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760347)

ability to scale 5 orders of magnitude in physical dimension is no smelly feet

There, fixed that for you

Re:Semiconductor Industry (0)

dietdew7 (1171613) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760387)

I think the original poster meant to say 'left feet', 'smelly feet' doesn't make sense.

Re:Semiconductor Industry (2)

Forty Two Tenfold (1134125) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760417)

'smelly feet' doesn't make sense.

It seems it's no small feat for you to understand that pun.

Related: White LEDs (2, Insightful)

Iskender (1040286) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760631)

In recent years white LEDs have appeared in more and more places. After early red and even earlier weak blue LEDs, in quite a short time we went from green to blue to white indicator LEDs, and now the white ones are getting ever better.

They're really a pretty miraculous technology: they're at least partially replacing everything from real candles to filament lamps to gas discharge lamps. They're about to unseat low pressure sodium lights as the most efficient streetlights, if they haven't already done so. Meanwhile they can still turn on and off faster than other lamps, and contain smaller amounts of toxic substances than most alternatives. They're a very science fictioney technology happening right here in real life.

Re:Related: White LEDs (1)

benjfowler (239527) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760681)

Not to mention, traffic lights.

Somebody I know worked in local government, and I helped him with a project where we sat around working out how much power we'd save my converting a set of street lights from convention to LED bulbs. The savings were massive -- little surprise then that they're appearing everywhere.

Re:Related: White LEDs (1)

jeffmeden (135043) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760691)

In recent years white LEDs have appeared in more and more places. After early red and even earlier weak blue LEDs, in quite a short time we went from green to blue to white indicator LEDs, and now the white ones are getting ever better.

They're really a pretty miraculous technology: they're at least partially replacing everything from real candles to filament lamps to gas discharge lamps. They're about to unseat low pressure sodium lights as the most efficient streetlights, if they haven't already done so. Meanwhile they can still turn on and off faster than other lamps, and contain smaller amounts of toxic substances than most alternatives. They're a very science fictioney technology happening right here in real life.

There's nothing I like more than a nice white indicator LED to give me a good sense of... Meh. It's just so perfectly balanced between red-for-bad and green-for-good, that its presence is changing our world. Even the ever-affable blue led can't compare.

But seriously, at least we are seeing white now instead of ever increasing intensities of blue. I am tired of covering up blue LEDs with tape so they don't blind me with glare.

There is at least one important one (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760229)

what are the most recent things you can think of that have been actual, new inventions?

The Apple Invention of rounded corners !

Re:There is at least one important one (1)

macbeth66 (204889) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760445)

While flippant, I think AC here has a point. I wonder how many inventions sit because IP protection is non-existent while silliness like this gets multi-billion payouts. Yeah, I'm aware of the recent judgement, but I'm just saying...

Re:There is at least one important one (4, Insightful)

Nerdfest (867930) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760719)

Many would-be inventors (and software developers) sit idly by or work on dull projects for large corporations because of companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Sony. It's financially dangerous to invent something or publish software as the hard part is not the engineering, it's the 'imaginary property' problem and all of the lawyers required. It's not worth the effort, as in the end you either get purchased by a large corporation or squashed by a large corporation. Most inventors aren't looking for imaginary property protection, they just want to make and sell a product.

I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (2)

ranulf (182665) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760231)

I think part of the problem is that a lot of inventions are really just the next logical step from current systems, and especially when you have a lot of independent groups working in similar areas, the chance of inventing something truly unique is quite low. One of the problems with the patent system, I think, is that it affords the first "inventor" an enormous advantage over everyone else who might also come up with the same idea independently.

I'm not saying there aren't often genuine inventions and patent worthy things, but a lot of stuff that is just an iteration beyond what went before isn't really an invention...

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760337)

As one of the inventors out there.... Yes we are real and we are definitely in the game. There are earth shattering new inventions all the time. The problem for the most part is a seriously busted patent system. It tends to keep us off of the system you are looking at. Just as a tease. Suppose I were to invent a device that made useful energy a different way. This invention I will give you from a yesterday's Slashdot post. OK here it is! Take the magnetic transistor technology and using a forward ratio typical of optical and electronic transistors of 1000:1 blast this microcoating onto a permanent magnet surface. Now I could turn on and off the magnet like a light switch with only 1/1000th of the magnetic field I currently find in the magnet.
Now I make the poles of a motor this way. Now I switch on and off my poles. Now I get a COP of 1000 out of a motor. Not bad for one day reading Slashdot eh? This invention application surely aught to go down in history as one of the top ones of all time. Given away on Slashdot because of our awful screwed up Patent system.
I expect hecklers and the like. Game over guys this one will work and is proved technology! You can argue all day long about where the energy comes from but it will work. --- Just a hint look for Maxwell's aether. (Oops I mean the Higgs field! - Just a renaming of Maxwell aether) If I haven't given you a hint as to the size of inventors now days don't run around with your eyes wide shut.

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760437)

If you had such an invention, no matter how broken the patent system is, you should easily be able to come rich without patenting it, and selling it as a black box. There are only two reasons you wouldn't become rich with it: it doesn't work, or you are the worst, stupidest business person ever who can't figure out how to sell it.

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760615)

So make one and prove it.

You can even weld the thing shut and make all those who lease it sign an NDA. Use trade secret to hide your invention.

Or here is a more likely scenario, it does not work and you are totally full of shit.

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (2)

griffinme (930053) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760395)

I think part of the problem is also the lack of low hanging fruit. After the explosion of the industrial revolution someone working in their garage/shed could do things like build an airplane. We reached a point were you needed unobtainiom to take things further. In some ways that has started to swing back. Look at what the Maker movement has been doing with easy to get and use chips. Yes, there have been thousands of "Oooo look at my blinky lights." But there have also been things like the Maker-Bot and the Raspberry Pi. People also have access to what would have been considered a super computer a few years ago as a laptop. And the Maker-Bot and its siblings I think could drastically change things. I don't need a proto shop, machine shop, etc. to build my idea to see if it works. The 3D printer in my shed can build the parts.

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760439)

IMHO, real invention is like a good joke - if a punchline doesn't surprise you, the joke sucks. Invention has to contain a surprise, or else it doesn't bring any value to the humanity and patenting it is an act of robbery.

Re:I prefer to think of inventions as discoveries (2)

YoungHack (36385) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760659)

In the context of this, I'd say the internet was a great invention. Look at how much it surprised a real powerhouse in the domain, Microsoft. No way would I have predicted in 1990 how ubiquitous the online experience would become.

Seems like a meaningless distinction (5, Insightful)

jbmartin6 (1232050) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760235)

Any invention is just an addition to preexisting technologies. Bell et al. didn't invent the telephone in ancient Greece for a reason. There was all sorts of work to be done with sound, electricity, and magnetism first. The telephone was just adding voice capability to the telegraph, right?

Re:Seems like a meaningless distinction (1, Funny)

Soluzar (1957050) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760607)

Good points, but among the many good reasons that Bell didn't invent the telephone in ancient greece was that he wasn't born yet. *rimshot*

Re:Seems like a meaningless distinction (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760683)

Not funny

Yeah (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760237)

I wish I could invent nigger repellant. I would spray all the inner cities.

Re:Yeah (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760311)

It has already been invented, as well as some convenient methods to spray it (vid. e.g. Avtomat Kalashnikova). Unfortunately, some authorities don't take to well to the spraying, including environmental bodies. All those shoes left behind do pose quite a problem.

Steve Jobs and Apple (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760239)

Clearly they invented the portable music device, the tablet computer, the cellular phone and the personal computer. No other company has done so much to enrich our lives. In about 3 years time we'll see that they will have invented the television too.

Re:Steve Jobs and Apple (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760275)

Hey, don't forget the round-cornered rectangle!

No. (1)

kurt555gs (309278) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760241)

The patent trolls see to that.

Re:No. (1)

Mike Frett (2811077) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760381)

Exactly, It's difficult to Invent anything these days without somebody threatening to sue you. A lot of new stuff use to come from some guy in his basement, but he can't do it anymore; he just doesn't have the funds to fight in Court. From my eyes, everything has pretty much come to a standstill until this is all sorted out, if ever.

Can you imagine being stuck with the same Technology for 50 or 100 years?. I wonder how long until this hits the Space Industry or things like Solar, would a person really sue all those people on youtube making their own Solar heaters and such?. It's a Crazy world now, almost everything that was taught in my school years is useless now. You can't do anything without some big Corporation putting its Lawyers up your trousers.

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760633)

I have to admit, having to deal with lawyers and paperwork has certainly deterred me from striking out on my own. I'd rather just work for a company.

Sensational indeed (5, Informative)

Maury Markowitz (452832) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760247)

"particularly with the media's appetite for sensational stories"

What, like claiming there are no new inventions to get the digerati all a-twitter and drive traffic to your site? Like that, you mean?

I have asthma. Over the past 35 years I have witnessed the slow and steady destruction of this affliction. I started with drugs that were expensive and did little or nothing to actually steady my attacks. Today I use something called Singulair which I take once a day and essentially makes my asthma disappear. It also mutes down all of my allergies, I can pet cats without any side effects now.

According to the BBC, this is not an invention. That's because we had drugs before, and we have other ones today. Clearly this is not *really* any sort of progress, right? The fact that my life, and millions of others, have been utterly transformed is just an illusion!

Re:Sensational indeed (4, Interesting)

Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760363)

Yeah what defines an invention in the eyes of some of the media differs considerably from invention really is - a slow, incremental process of discovery. When these guys think of an inventor they see Doc Brown, not teams of researchers, scientists, and engineers working for decades. Battery life is another one, it has been increasing steadily year on year, but because manufacturers use these advances to put smaller and slimmer batteries into phones, some people think batteries haven't improved at all, or have somehow gotten worse.

Re:Sensational indeed (0)

amiga3D (567632) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760389)

I see what you're saying. Your life has greatly improved because of the perfection of Ashthma medication. Is that drug really a breakthrough though or just an improvement of an existing line? This is like nuclear power plants. They make power exactly the same way that coal plants do. They boil water. We still, all these years later just boil water. Only the fuel has changed.

Re:Sensational indeed (1)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760415)

We still, all these years later just boil water

- oh yeah, it's turtles all the way down. We are still manipulating materials, atoms, electrons and photons at best. When are we finally going to go deeper and disassemble this Matrix?

What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
No, Neo. I'm trying to tell you that when you're ready, you won't have to.

Re:Sensational indeed (1)

jadv (1437949) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760733)

What about nanotechnology (just to mention an example off the top of my head)? Does that fit into the BBC's definition of "Invention?" What about stem cell research?

Re:Sensational indeed (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760427)

Today I use something called Singulair which I take once a day and essentially makes my asthma disappear. It also mutes down all of my allergies, I can pet cats without any side effects now.

but but but but, drug companies are evil almost as evil as Bill Gates!

According to the BBC, this is not an invention. That's because we had drugs before, and we have other ones today. Clearly this is not *really* any sort of progress, right? The fact that my life, and millions of others, have been utterly transformed is just an illusion!

Yeah, advances in robotics to the point where prostetics can be almost convincing instead of just a hook, advances in data storage and rerieval fields so that each second I am wasting more computational potential than existed in artifical form on earth in 1989, [sarcasm]clearly inventing stopped completely with the invention of the TV remote control.[/sarcasm]

Added humor, my capcha was "inhaler"

Re:Sensational indeed (1)

kcurtis (311610) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760459)

Agreed.

Then there is this: "the iPhone was not a new invention - it was just a much better telephone than any we'd seen before." Hogwash. Sure, we call it a telephone, but it is as different as shouting is from a landline, and it uses a crap-ton of new materials, software, imaging and wireless innovations - many of which did not exist 15 years ago.

Re:Sensational indeed (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760667)

Just hundreds of thousands at best.
Because of the broken IP laws, most of the people of the world will need to wait another few decades until they get that drug as easy as you do. Take me for instance, my problem isn't as bad as you describe, but that drug, or anything similar isn't available in my country. And if it is, then I would probably need to rob a bank to pay for it.

There are plenty new inventions, in fact the rate accelerated even more since the internet gained even more importance, but the author is mentally stuck in the past, probably expecting some more ground breaking inventions like the steam engine. News flash, it took decades before it was turned from an insane idea to a practical reality. Same thing today.

Here's One (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760251)

I can now 'bang' my friends on Facebook. We've never had that before.

I have an invention... (1)

awptic (211411) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760253)

A moon dust rover :)

how about using the dust on the moon as rocket fuel? imagine this... blast dust downward underneath the rover, and kick up more dust. use the dust you kick-up as more rocket fuel.

Re:I have an invention... (1)

awptic (211411) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760265)

i mean to say better...

blast dust downward and you'll get dust to kick up like throwing sand at sand. then have it caught in your typhoon and blast some backwards to move forward too.

What is an invention? (1, Funny)

gandalfur (760853) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760255)

"...iPhone was not a new invention - it was just a much better telephone than any we'd seen before." And the light bulb was just a much better way to light up the room...

Re:What is an invention? (2)

dywolf (2673597) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760369)

Easy question:

The iphone is fundamentally still a wireless telephone, and outgrowth of both telephone and radio technology, and it could be argued electronics as well. Perhaps the pinnacle of such tech, but still a derivation.

The light bulb however was not still a candle, but fundamentally different using a completely different basis in science/engineering, different from anything that had come before it.

Re:What is an invention? (2)

anarcobra (1551067) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760485)

A light bulb is just a glowing piece of metal in a ball of glass.

Re:What is an invention? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760503)

The light bulb is probably a bad example considering variations of it were around 70+ years before it was commercialized (i.e. about the time Edison is given credit for finding a practical version). Even then, it was just based on the idea hot things glowed and electricity made things hot, waiting for a strong enough source of electrical batteries to work.

How would they know? (5, Insightful)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760257)

AFAIC there are plenty of inventions, most people aren't noticing them because these things today are much more specialised in nature. What they are really looking for and can't find is huge, gigantic breakthroughs, an antigravity device or perpetuum mobile of some sort. They can't see what is not immediately obvious, and what is not immediately obvious does not become a stand alone product in its own right.

I even disagree with the supposed lack of 'cross-sector innovation'. There is probably more cross-sector innovation today than ever before in history, that's because the Inernet allows people to read about solutions that are found and used in other sectors and apply those to themselves. What this guy, Paul Martin says, is that there is "no recognition". Well, shit, that's the only thing I agree with: there is no recognition.

Well sure there is no recognition, and he is the first to lack vision to recognise just how much 'cross sector innovation' is actually happening today compared to decades and centuries ago.

Re:How would they know? (1)

jeffmeden (135043) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760749)

AFAIC there are plenty of inventions, most people aren't noticing them because these things today are much more specialised in nature. What they are really looking for and can't find is huge, gigantic breakthroughs, an antigravity device or perpetuum mobile of some sort. They can't see what is not immediately obvious, and what is not immediately obvious does not become a stand alone product in its own right.

This is it exactly. One of the recent (and yes, hyped) inventions that sprang to mind was the Segway. Was it a really novel combination of a number of advanced technologies (batteries, gyros, sensors, etc.)? Yes, to me that qualifies as the very definition of invention; taking advanced discoveries and combining them in a unique way. Did it change many lives? Probably not (unless you are in the guided tour business.) The simple fact is that we in the developed world have it pretty damn good. We don't "need" any more inventions to make our lives easier, we have plentiful food, water, shelter, and entertainment available to even the lower classes. Sure, we want cool new inventions, and there is probably even a place where they are "needed", but the "age of invention" in the early 20th century happened because life was shitty.

"Are There Any Real Inventors Left?" (1)

John Hasler (414242) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760279)

Yes. Quit expecting to see real inventions among heavily-marketed consumer products, though.

People are products of the times (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760281)

It usually takes a great mind or minds to create something great, but they have to be nurtured in a society or subculture and given positive or negative feedback every step of the way, at least until they're 40 years old or something.

Agree that not much has been invented in IT for the last 30 years. But now robotics are entering into the age that computers entered into in the '50s and '60s, and nanotech isn't too far behind.

Good question... (2)

kiriath (2670145) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760287)

While I have no real facts to back this up, I would think that the innovative process requires new materials to create new ideas. Through the ages we learned and invented as we discovered new metals and other materials. I am betting that when / if we do discover some new materials in significant quantities that are useful we'll come up with new uses for them.

So when someone comes out with transparent steel or something I'll be able to invent some cool stuff.

I also feel like science fiction movies have sort of spoiled the 'wow' factor of a good majority of innovations. "Great, so you made a cell phone. It's not a communicator I can wear on my shirt... and talk to outer space with" - That's a rough example but it is an illustration of the point I was trying to convey.

inventions lead to lawsuits (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760299)

who can afford to invent?

Re:inventions lead to lawsuits (1)

pudknocker (516571) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760763)

AI attorneys! That would save people and businesses some money. I'll get right on it.

Innovation is waning? Don't think so! (4, Insightful)

jiriw (444695) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760351)

To start with the actual lightbulbs: High yield white light LED technology. Sure, the photoelectric effect has been known for about a century. It took a while for the first practical applications to be available. LEDs being one of them. But you can't compare those little signalling LEDs of a few decades ago with the current lightbulb replacing LED technology. Of course this technology is a mix of other technologies, but quite a few of them are quite recent (as in max. decades old, not centuries).

The article mentions the Telephone as a truly innovative invention. But doesn't that in its turn used microphone, speaker and signal transportation technology of that time?

If the time frame for 'recent' is 'last half century' or so, I'd say there have been true inventions in, optical disk technology, various microprocessor advancements, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence hardware, gene manipulation, solar cell technology and various other fields. Too many to mention.
If algorithms can be inventions as well, we have never been as innovative as we are now. Look at all the new search technologies, data-mining for targeted ads, again AI algorithms, mostly visible to the general public in computer games, audio and video compression codecs, speech recognition, synthesis and language translation... the list goes on and on...

Yes! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760355)

Betteridge's law of headlines notwithstanding, I think there are definitely inventors. They're called "people that create amazing things but typically don't patent them, don't sell them, and don't sue people who later 'invent' them".

Sure, these people don't create elevators but they create amazing things. Heck, even the patent-filing people create useful things. Simply look at medical devices. Yes, a lot of them are improvements on prior models - scissors and knives mostly - but look at minimally invasive spine surgical equipment or hip replacements? Stents and abilities to inject medicine directly to the affected area. Heck, even breast implants have dramatically improved. What about HDD->SSD? Slow, power hungry, prone to physical failure to fast, efficient, and stable. SSD itself has come a long way in a short time.

What about inventions related to politics? Use of social media, Internet in general, fund raising, grassroots activism that leads to real world changes (for better or worse).

People keep thinking about the light bulb when they think of inventions but it doesn't work like that. I consider technology more like evolution - a gradual process of change with some spurts here and there. Even the iPhone is an example of that - we've had phones before, phones that go online, and phones that have touch screen capabilities, but then you have the iPhone which dramatically changed the landscape (again, for better or worse). Heck, look at CGI technology, look at space exploration (now open to private business!). Look at the knowledge gained in automation and machinery, DNA sequencing, even healthcare (AIDS used to be a major killer).

I'm sure this article could have been written centuries ago when the tallest structures were still the pyramids. If people are complaining about lack of flying cars or personal jet packs, they need to open their eyes wider. It's just that R&D money often goes to funding things we know in the same way movie industry keeps pumping out the same movies. But that doesn't mean there aren't unique stories being written by amateurs.

The monitary system (4, Insightful)

HyperQuantum (1032422) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760359)

Most people don't have time to be creative and invent new things. They spend 8 hours a day doing what someone else is telling them to do. All because you need money just to live.

Re:The monitary system (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760693)

Most people don't have time to be creative and invent new things. They spend 8 hours a day doing what someone else is telling them to do. All because you need money just to live.

Too bad there's only 8 hours in a day, and you can't think about anything else while working.

One word: FLESHLIGHT (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760419)

There haven't been any new inventions lately? Pshaw!

Re: One word: FLESHLIGHT (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760701)

And they say there are no more heroes.

How about Dean Kamen? (3, Insightful)

dkleinsc (563838) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760423)

Some of the inventions to his name:
- the Segway
- the iBot wheelchair, capable of climbing stairs
- a home dialysis machine
- an insulin pump to help diabetics maintain a proper level
- a low-power water purifier for use in developing countries

Misreading leads to misleading. (4, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760425)

The BBC is running a story about invention and innovation, suggesting that there have been no truly new inventions in a long time.

Well, no. The story is about innovation, invention is just barely mentioned - and that in passing. The bulk of the story is about innovations, cross pollination between industries and fields, and how innovations build on previous iterations. All of this leading up to opinion (unsurprisingly, since it's an opinion piece, not a "story" per se) that industries must avoid becoming insular to avoid being left behind. (Though it appears by "industries", it appears he actually means "British corporations".)
 

It leads to the question: what are the most recent things you can think of that have been actual, new inventions? Or has the high-tech revolution just been iterative innovation?"

Well, setting aside the fact that you've mistaken a supporting statement for a thesis... Why does it matter? Arguably, iterative innovation is every bit as important as invention. Progress is as much about the measured steps as it is about giant leaps.

Inventors don't go public anymore. (5, Insightful)

JustAnotherIdiot (1980292) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760431)

The reason you don't "see" any inventors is because of the massive hoard of lawyers that would come after any public inventor.
People who invent tend to keep it to themselves, because they'd never turn a profit after all the lawsuits.

BBC wrong by it's own measure (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760465)

"Real" invention: Graham Bell and the Telephone. Never mind the ~30 years of inventions that came before it, including the one where the term Telephone even comes from (Reis anyone?). Stupid.

And then they speak of Apple and the Iphone because, supposedly, everyone believes that was some sort of great invention and not merely a very well executed idea that had already existed before.

Weak and sad.

Coincidence? (1)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760475)

Just a coincidence that these 2 are found on the /. front page one just a tiny while after the other:

Are There Any Real Inventors Left? [slashdot.org]

Nokia Receives $1.35B Grant To Develop Graphene Tech [slashdot.org]

Yeah, clearly there aren't any real inventors left unless the government gives them billions of dollars.

(Somebody asked in that story: what are they going to use Graphene for? Clearly they missed the point: to get $1.35Billion in tax payer money. Now that's an invention, though an old one, but still a good one.)

that didn't last long! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760715)

earlier today you actually wrote a genuinely insightful comment that was worthy of praise, and it was moderated accordingly. then less than a half-hour later you go straight back to reciting scripture. and you wonder why you can't get your karma out of the latrine?

Is society in decline? (1)

concealment (2447304) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760479)

Yes.

Remember the book War of the Worlds? In it, what ultimately kept the aliens at bay were the same diseases that plague us.

It turns out that we needed predators, new adventures, challenges, struggles and discomforts to stay motivated.

Instead, we have Big Macs and Netflix, and we keep shuffling the same technologies around and trying to build an economy on selling the result to each other and then taxing it...

Re:Is society in decline? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760729)

It turns out that we needed predators, new adventures, challenges, struggles and discomforts

and then taxing it...

I think you just inadvertently pointed out this age's predator to be overcome.

A few. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760501)

Yes, but most of the are Scotsmen.

Patents and inventions (2)

ColdCat (2586245) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760511)

There is more and more patents every year, so there should be many new inventions no ?
j/k

Not even 3D Printers? (1)

sandytaru (1158959) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760525)

I'm pretty sure the ability to create a real, physical object based on a series of 1s and 0s in a file is worthy of being called an invention. Sure, you could consider it an "improvement" on the printing press, but things like the MakerBot are really something unique on their own.

Not this again (1)

Fireshadow (632041) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760541)

There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don't know.
Ambrose Bierce

MEDICINE (1)

schneidafunk (795759) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760545)

There have been some massive breakthroughs in the medical field in the last few years and most recently, a possible cure for AIDS [foxnews.com] and cancer [msn.com] .

Re:MEDICINE (1)

Skiron (735617) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760625)

But these are not inventions, nor really innovations - just 'discovery' of something that changes/fixes 'x' or 'y' (or leads to the fix).

Three sorts of invention. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760557)

Firstly, you have the big concept.

This would be things like the wheel, fencing livestock to control grazing and protect from predators, a means of talking to people at a distance.

These sort of ideas recurr throughout history.

They only become usefully possible at a given level of technology.

If you want to make a telephone in 1300BC - you're at best limited to speaking tubes.

Then you have the second sort of invention - this is to take a newly developed process or technology - say for example impact extrusion - and realise it can be applied to revolutionise your existing product - making metal shells for phones and other devices that are much stronger and lighter than previous ones.

Finally there is the third sort - where you take existing or near term technology, and put it together in a novel, unobvious way.

In some ways, I'd only call the third 'invention'.
The first is unrealisable because of cost - the second is just driven through obvious application of process or component improvements.

The third is also the hardest to think of examples of.
In general, it would be first designs of their class.
For example, the Wright Flyer, Stephensons Rocket, the Newcomen steam engine.

The iphone wasn't really an invention.
It was the coming together of lots of technologies advancing so as to make a personal computing/telephony device plausible at a reasonable cost in the form factor.
The Sony Walkman wasn't really an invention - it was a clever packaging of existing technologies.
It is hard to call any personal computer an invention, simply as there is pretty much an unbroken chain back to the first digital computers, and all improvements have been strictly obvious from the available technology.

What about the wheel? (3, Insightful)

Sir or Madman (2818071) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760561)

The wheel. Now that was a real invention!

50,000 BCE - Tree dies and log rolls down hill to the bewilderment of the filthy cave-people nearby.

35,000 BCE - A lunatic Neanderthal pushes a log down a hill to crush his enemies.

3500 BCE - Someone eventually figures out that you can use a bunch of rolling logs side-by-side to move boulders.

3000 BCE - A slave engineer from North Africa narrows the points of a rack of logs to attached a guide so they stay together whilst rolling.

40 BCE - Some Roman stone mason makes a log out of stone and more disc-shaped.

2 BCE - And finally, some brilliant -real- inventor pokes a hole in an old stone log and sticks a wooden log inside as an axle, probably so he can better lash someone to it for a good flogging.

We just don't have -real- inventions anymore like the wheel!

Lost decade (1)

michaelmalak (91262) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760573)

Usually when it is said "no new inventions" they are comparing against the flurry of activity from circa 1850-1950, and then I point out how the commercial worldwide Internet (early 1990's) and affordable cell phones (mid 1990's) fundamentally changed life. Before the 1990's cell phone, women did not go out alone at night. But this BBC article defines "recent" as "21st century" and focuses on everyone's favorite non-invention whipping boy, the iPhone.

Well, 2001-2010, has been called the "lost decade" for Microsoft, and in my opinion was the lost decade in general for a lot of organizations, market sectors, and technology areas. 9-11 set in an economic conservatism and then the housing bubble that followed (resulting from the low interest rates that were instituted to counter that economic conservatism) misdirected a huge percentage of time and effort away from productive endeavors. And then of course the Great Recession. We're only now waking up from that 12-year sleep, and there is now a lot of exciting stuff going on.

The BBC's article is like writing about a 17-year-old and saying, "he hasn't even gotten a diploma yet to show for all those years of schooling."

Besides those two life-changing inventions I started out with, though, there is a third and it is more recent: the end of physical media. One could say eBooks, flash drives, DVRs, broadband, and low-priced scanners (who remembers when they used to be $5,000?) are all incremental, but taken together, they have fundamentally changed life: libraries are obsolete, and homes no longer have to devote square footage to media storage.

Of course ... (1)

Rambo Tribble (1273454) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760613)

... this argument has been with us for at least a century, as well.

interesting take on innovation and invention myths (1)

mr_boodog (2475366) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760629)

Yesterday, I watched this video about Apple's claims of inventions. Although it is a kick in the ass for Apple, this guy is just trying to show they need to stop harassing and taking down competitors by using the broken patent law system. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFeC25BM9E0 [youtube.com]

Inventions look large when looking back (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760635)

There's a timeline of the invention of the combustion engine here: http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aacarsgasa.htm

I'm not going to paste it in, but it stretches from 1680 to 1889 for the first gas fuelled car.

That was 200 years of increments which in the lens of history looks like a single invention.

When we are part of a 200-year view in the future, there will undoubtedly be a couple of "inventions" attributed to us.

We stand on the shoulders of giants (1)

big_e_1977 (2012512) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760643)

Gone are the days when a sole inventor working in a garage could come up with a revolutionary new design that will change the world. All the low hanging fruit is gone. Now it is about slow incremental changes over time. One analogy is wikipedia. At the very beginning, you could easily come up with an article about a topic that nobody else there had written about. Nowadays, not so much... Your new article on wikipedia is likely to be a very obscure topic, or one created by a current event. You are more likely now to edit existing articles than to create new ones.

The next Volta Watt Tesla ect (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760653)

the problem is the lack of NEW fields where you can land up having your name used for the Units of that field. That and getting into a new ar3ea (even if its related to an existing one) is a good way to be sued/criminally charged/shot by somebody.

Minefield (2)

gmuslera (3436) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760661)

Unless you are an anonymous employee on a fixed salary of a big corporation that takes the merit and profit for your inventions (where don't worth it), is just too risky to even try.

Absurd. (3, Interesting)

MaWeiTao (908546) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760673)

I'd say progress comes in waves. Someone invents something revolutionary and then others spend decades, if not centuries, improving that technology and exploiting it to its fullest extent. That said, technology is growing increasingly complex which means that it requires the involvement of multiple people. An individual might have an ambiguous vision like a flying car, but the odds of that person along inventing the technology that would make it work is slim.

I do think it's outrageously idiotic to suggest that we are not in a golden age of invention. The author seems to be arguing that there's no invention because we haven't been hit with big, flashy bits of technology. Progress is far more subtle than that. It's iterative and often has a long incubation period.

Much of it isn't even noteworthy on it's own, but enables a whole host of new technologies. Look at something as mundane as manufacturing processes. If you gave an engineer in 1980 the complete schematics to a modern smartphone they wouldn't be able to build the thing. They haven't had the advances in machining and material sciences to enable that technology.

Every few years some dolt writes an editorial complaining about how there's no real innovation because cars still require wheels or computers look kind of like typewriters. The guy who's written this particular editorial is probably being self-serving given that he represents some consultancy. But generally I think the attitude is incredibly self-centered. It's the idea that because the world hasn't met *MY* ridiculous standards there is no innovation. Because I haven't been observant enough or alive long enough to notice the fundamental impact on humanity nothing's changed.

Few practical inventions/innovations (0)

pudknocker (516571) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760737)

No consumer robotics. Roomba has been around for how long?? Why do I have to wash my windows, wash my laundry, and mow my grass?
  • No advances in space travel in 50 years
  • No major aviation advances
  • Medicine has seen new inventions and innovations, but no cure for cancer.
  • No flying cars
  • Self-driving cars? Maybe, but I wonder when we will really see them. Commute to work is still a pain, probably worse than 20 years ago.
  • Construction? Buildings and infrastructure. Incremental improvement, but I don't have an integrated home control system, and few do.

    • BTW, does anyone realize it is 2013?

The lone inventor is a myth (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760743)

The stepwise refinement, collaboration, and remixing we see today is the way it has always been. Everything you ever learned about "Person X invented thing Y" is wrong. Such statements are made by history books to make a good story, and have no connection to reality. Edison was a smart and hard-working guy, but he didn't invent the light bulb or the phonograph out of thin air, nor did Bell the telephone, or Marconi the radio. They all played a role, hardly a unique one.

Art critics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42760769)

The art critics won gloriously.

The smart thing to do when you invent something is to shut up about it. If you invent new things regularly you should probably isolate yourself from society as much as possible. Don't even bother trying to reason with people, your idea has no value in their view and that makes it worthless on their market. Your idea is most likely not as good as cold fusion. Here the general public has THOUSANDS of published replications available to them. Prominent labs, admirable scientists including Nobel prize laureates. The art skeptics have nothing to show for their criticism but look how it flourishes? haha?? What a joke??

Your invention is not as good as this nor was it published this elaborately. It means you shouldn't even try. The Wikipedias and the James Randies of this world are not going to sign your NDA but they present themselves with authority over your work. Authority granted to them by the masses of art critics.

I know what you must think reading this but my advice is simple: no one should subject himself to the glorious debunking parade. Keep that what is precious to you outside the grasp of nasty hobitses.

The lone inventor is a myth (5, Insightful)

lcrocker (144720) | about a year and a half ago | (#42760771)

The stepwise refinement, collaboration, and remixing we see today is the way it has always been. Everything you ever learned about "Person X invented thing Y" is wrong. Such statements are made by history books to make a good story, and have no connection to reality. Edison was a smart and hard-working guy, but he didn't invent the light bulb or the phonograph out of thin air, nor did Bell the telephone, or Marconi the radio. They all played a role, but hardly a unique one.

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