From the 'Innovation' bibliography

Published as: Ford, Brian J., 1995, The Nature of Innovation, Biologist, 42 (5): 236-238, November.
Reprinted in: 1996, Hong Kong University: School of Research Studies Newsletter, 3 (5): 1-4, January.
Cited in: Spedding, Sir Colin, 1996, [discusses BJF paper on innovation, in] Agriculture and the Citizen: 222-223, with table 16.1, London: Chapman and Hall.

See also New Scientist article and Daily Telegraph report.

The Nature of Innovation

Brian J Ford

Mention the word ‘science’ and the conventional image springs to the public mind: serried rows of white coated individuals bent on nudging new knowledge from an unwilling universe.

But scientific innovation is something else. Great paradigm shifts depend on innovation, for which there is no training. Science is not gentle with innovators, and the scientific establishment offers little encouragement to individuals who tread that lonely path. Scientific progress is drawn in new directions by the independent spirit, but here we lack the convenience of an orthodox image. Unless funding is directed towards these cutting-edge areas of experimentation and discovery, then the future of science is dimmed. Official spokesman like to say they are realistic in assessing priorities. But how much do we know about innovation?

The reality of scientific discovery is an extraordinary tale. Innovators are very different from popular conceptions of a scientist. Frequently, they come from fields quite unlike those in which they make their mark. J B Dunlop, to whom we owe pneumatic tyre technology, was a veterinary surgeon. Louis Pasteur was a chemist, self-taught in bacteriology; Leeuwenhoek, pioneer of microbiology, worked as a haberdasher; Christopher Wren, whose majestic architecture extends far further than the grandeur of St Paul’s cathedral, was a physician who pioneered the hypodermic syringe; whilst Ladislao Biro who, with his brother Georg invented the ball-point pen, was a sculptor.

Geology owes a great debt to William Smith who carefully drew magnificent geological maps of Britain in 1815, and followed that with publications linking fossils to the age of rocks. Smith was a navvy who gained his knowledge of rocks through planning canals. Untrained and uneducated, he was rejected by the establishment until the award of the first Wollaston medal by the Geological Society in 1931. Félix d’Hérelle, who named the bacteriophage and devoted his life-time to prodigious studies of phage viruses in nature, left school unqualified too. He seems to have spent much of his early life as an outlaw, eventually becoming a professor at Yale.

One powerful motive is a determination to find an answer to a problem which eludes establishment researchers. Modern three-layer monopack colour photography was pioneered, not by employees of a high-powered research institute, but by two concert musicians who experimented in their hotel rooms between performances on stage. Leopold Mannes and Leo Godowsky Jr were school-friends who experimented as a hobby. As young adults they earned a living by teaching and performing music, but carried out spare-time experiments in photography in the Mannes’ kitchen and studied chemistry from books. By 1923 they had produced their first full-colour images in a single film, a crucial scientific development. They continued to experiment as they travelled around Europe, playing classical music in concerts, and when they eventually agreed to join Kodak it was in return for a generous deal which gave them patent royalties, luxurious laboratory facilities and full technical support.

Current governmental policies emphasise market forces and product-driven research, and there are many examples in the history of science and technology which fit this mould. Automatic telephone dialling, a key innovation for the era of information technology, was developed by an undertaker who was losing business through an eaves-dropper at the exchange. The xerographic photocopier was invented by a lawyer who was tired of the time taken in copying documents by hand. Chester Carlson wrote an amateur magazine on printing and graphics as a student, and after graduating in law became a patents attorney. The time taken in obtaining copies of documents proved to be a burden to his work, and he set out to establish xerography as an answer to the problem. Carlson based his technical studies on the scientific collections of the New York Public library, and by the time he took out his patents in 1937 he had not carried out any experiments to show that the idea worked in practice.

The development of the computer owed much to the lure of a goal. Charles Babbage was driven to develop his pioneering ‘difference engine’, (recently successfully built and operated for the first time at the Science Museum, London) by his lust for gambling and the calculation of odds. His Cambridge degree and his tenure of the Lucasian chair of mathematics may seem to make him more of an establishment scientist than the others mentioned here, but less well known is the fact that he was primarily self-taught in mathematics. By the time he entered Trinity in 1811 he was far more proficient in mathematics than his lecturers.

Today’s desk-top computer, to which current society owes so much, was developed from production-line chips by Clive Sinclair, a private inventor without academic qualifications. Sinclair began his career as a technical journalist, and designed his prototype mini-computer in the face of establishment opinion which was opposed to the viability of the idea. During the early years of the product, the Sinclair computer out-sold all others in the western world, and the modern office computer is directly descended from that visionary innovation.

The individual experimenter has given us the range of tape recording media on which sound, vision and computer data storage is based. The predecessor of the tape recorder was the Telegraphone, a wire-based machine conceived and constructed in his spare time by an employee of the Danish telephone company, Valdemar Poulsen, in 1898. Not until the late 1930s was the wire recorder substantially improved, and this work was done by Marvin Camras of Illinois whilst still a student, working on the project as a hobby.

The move from wire to tape was the result of research in his private laboratory by an Austrian named Pfeulmer, who invented the medium of tape through spare-time research at home. The heart of the random-access memory of modern computers is the disk, of course, developed first by IBM. The development of the disk memory was not a recognised research programme, but was a bootleg adventure by a few employees. To perfect their concept they worked against official instructions, and indeed had been ordered to stop. They pressed ahead, fearful of discovery, and developed their crucial brain-child in defiance of Company policy.

Is there some support in this for the current vogue for goal-oriented research? I am disinclined to that view. Though these researchers, and so many others like them, were drawn along by the challenge of seeing a new idea immortalised in the annals of endeavour, they were not led to their research by peers. They were home hobbyists, amateur enthusiasts, gifted visionaries - far from conventional views of the devoted and single-minded scientist closetted in an officially funded institute. How widespread and fundamental have been the results of their brave experiments - yet the need to work independently is a clear source of incentive. Indeed there is often an aversion to working with others. Einstein wrote that he was ‘a horse for single harness’ and always preferred to work alone. The long-playing vinyl record was perfected by Peter Goldmark, and though it is true that he was an employee of the Columbia Record Company, many of his crucial experiments were done at home in the evenings, and when he was working on the idea at Columbia he usually worked in the evenings, and alone. Margarine and magnetic recording, Bakelite and the ball-point, jet engines and genetics, antibiotics (including penicillin and streptomycin) and polymers (from cellophane to polythene) were all pioneered by individual researchers working either alone or with a single friend.

The principle applies, not only to the convenient novelties of science, but to the greatest endeavours of all. J L Enos has shown that, even in the mighty world of petroleum, almost all the major departures in thought have come from innovators who were not in the mainstream of the industry. Only one discovery, Burton’s use of cracking charged stock with a restricted range of boiling-points, was made by the employee of a large oil company.

It is argued that large companies are necessary to provide the capital necessary for developmental research. The pharmaceutical industry is the most widely-quoted case in point, for it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to move from first experiments to the marketing of an ethical preparation. These pressures themselves cause added difficulties. A return on the investment is a prime requisite, which diverts attention away from the overwhelming need for armoury against the massive burden of tropical diseases that afflict much of the world’s population. Closer to home, it makes it impossible to develop drugs against relatively uncommon conditions - Creutzfeldt-Jacob and Huntingdon’s diseases, for example - since the catchment of victims will not offer an acceptable return on the investment.

Even in cases where the size of the company is a prerequisite of costly research, unexpected factors may intervene. In many major developmental programmes, success ensued only when something went wrong with the experiment. The development of float glass, far cheaper than the plate glass it was destined to replace, was the brain-child of Alastair Pilkington. But good luck, and pure chance, also played vital roles in its development. Pilkington’s designs for prototype apparatus failed to produce satisfactory glass for many years. The first time the process succeeded was when part of the machine broke, and the experiment was run without anyone realising something was wrong. By chance, the process proved to produce glass sheets approximately one-quarter of an inch in thickness - and this was the gauge most in demand. The £7m development budget depended crucially on these two unpredictable factors to succeed.

Polythene, one of the most important of all plastics, was an ICI discovery. But it too owes its development to an unforeseen problem with the experimental apparatus. In 1933 a high-pressure laboratory was set up to test polymerisation processes. During work on ethene, a fault developed in the apparatus and the pressure was unexpectedly reduced. It was as a result of this accidental occurrence that the first sample of polythene was obtained.

If error, good fortune, rebelliousness and individuality are so important in the conduct of science, then does this explain the rash of anti-science books that are recently in print? In truth, that cannot be sustained. The individual workers do not set themselves apart from scientific knowledge, but seek to improve it. To the innovators in science, nothing compares with the majestic edifice of scientific insight. The research is done because science is such stimulating, all-consuming fun, and not because it is the enemy. Science is our key to understanding. It would be no more rational to be anti-science than ‘opposed to knowledge’ or ‘against thinking’.

It is true that we are in danger of losing sight of how innovation occurs. The comfortable research laboratory and its all-pervading images of orthodoxy can divert us from the realities of research. The current tendency to worship the market, and to seek sight of the destination before the journey starts, can draw resources away from the exciting areas where new science is born. Funding organisations must support speculative research, driven by curiosity, identified by its sparkle and its seductive sense of newness.

The greatest developments are often the cheapest. The most influential single work in theoretical physics during the twentieth century was Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was the result of work in his spare time when a patents clerk in Zurich. In biology, the pinnacle is occupied by the double helix of DNA. When Watson and Crick took Franklin’s diffraction evidence for the helical structure of the molecule and made it into the model we now know so well, they did it in defiance of departmental policy, working on their own when the laboratory was officially closed.

Science policy makers ignore the innovators at their peril. Funding agencies should now offer a tranche of support for those who seek to walk in virgin snow, drawn on by the delights of novelty and the irresistible challenge of discovering the new. From this came so much of our present knowledge, and society may miss out on the future if we continue to turn a blind eye to this most fundamental activity at the heart of science.


[These images are not available on the web site]

1) biology: Edward Jenner

A doctor’s apprentice, Jenner was a keen naturalist. He was encouraged in his work by John Hunter the anatomist (who himself began life as a cabinet maker). Jenner was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society not for his work on vaccination but through his reports of the way the young cuckoo pushes other birds from the nest.

2) chemistry: Sir Humphry Davy

The son of a Cornish wood-carver, Davy was introduced to science by a family friend, Robert Dunkin, a saddler with a penchant for experimentation. Davy took to poetry and was apprenticed to a surgeon. At 23 he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry at the new Royal Institution.

3) electricity: Michael Faraday

One of ten children of a stonemason’s family, the young Faraday was apprenticed to a London bookbinder. After attending Davy’s lectures he called to his home and pleaded for a job at the Institution. A grand tour through Europe introduced him to many leading scientists, though he never attended university.

4) astronomy: Sir John Frederick Herschel

Herschel devoted much of his life a compiling a vast catalogue of celestial objects. His father Sir William was builder of the then largest telescope in the world, and was a church organist at Bath when he discovered Uranus. He made his observations with the help of sister Caroline from the back garden of his home.

5) steam power: Robert Stephenson

Like his father George (who began as a herdsman), Robert Stephenson served an apprenticeship as a collier. George constructed the world’s first successful steam locomotive, whilst his son Robert built the track and many innovative railway bridges which revolutionised long-distance transportation.

See also: Bibliography of Brian J Ford on Innovation