Necessity is the Mother of . . . Innovation?

My wife and I recently went to the Henry Ford Museum.  My wife worked there for almost eight years as a guide and interpreter, as well as training guides and interpreters.  I always enjoy our visits, but this one was particularly insightful for me.

I’m not sure what sparked the discussion, but she pointed out that, as a nation, we prize innovation much more than invention.  We place a much higher value on the practical than the theoretical.  We like what we can see, touch, feel, not what happens in the mind of someone else.  We like ideas, but we want to see them in action.  We think we want invention, but we prefer innovation.   

For example, while standing in the exhibits, I heard countless people explain to their kids that Henry Ford invented the car.  My wife snorted in disgust as she pointed out to me, in a fairly loud voice I might add, that Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he didn’t invent the internal combustion engine, and he didn’t invent the moving assembly line.  He wasn’t an inventor, he was a fabulous innovator.  At the time, the internal combustion engine had one speed, forward.  To back your car up required getting out and pushing.  Henry Ford tinkered with it and created an engine that had two speeds forward, and a reverse gear.  He got the idea of the moving assembly line from the slaughterhouses.  Until the moving assembly line, cars were assembled one at the time by skilled machinists.  Ford liked the idea that he could hire unskilled labor to build the cars. 

When we got to Edison’s lab, I got another earful about innovation.  Edison wasn’t the first to create the light bulb, the electric generator, or wiring.  He put all of the elements together to create the first electrical lighting system.  Edison was a great marketer.  He was gifted at finding people willing to invest in his “invention factories,” as he called his labs.  Edison even admitted that he was more likely to improve on the inventions of others.  The only invention he claimed as being truly original was the phonograph, a fact most people forget today.

As we continued through the exhibits, my wife pointed out example after example of innovation being remembered and invention conveniently forgotten.  So what did I get out of the visit?  I realized that it’s not the person that creates the original idea that’s remembered but the person that markets and sells it.  As a country we prize the marketing genius rather than the creative genius.  What does this mean to us as a country?  Keep watching this blog to find out.

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