Iterative Innovation (Improvements on Existing Technology) by Smart Idea Store


Most successful inventions aren’t completely new products.  They normally begin by evaluating existing technology, identifying ways to improve or expand on the performance and then develop an improved product.


Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899, is famously associated with the phrase:


“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”


As you can imagine, this is not the most inspiring phrase that a Commissioner of the US Patent Office could utter, especially as his position and his employer rely on new inventions to stay in business.  It is reassuring to find out that the phrase actually comes from a Punch Magazine sketch from the same year and is apocryphal, with Mr Duell actually saying when he was the United States Commissioner of Patents:


“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”


Charles Holland Duell, 1902


It is this desire for advancement that underlines innovation, which, after all, derives from the Latin word ‘innovatus’ that means “to renew or change”.  Most great ideas aren’t completely novel and are improvements on existing technology.  It is identifying how technology can function better or creating additional functions that would improve the benefits of the technology that lies behind the best inventions.


There are many revolutionary inventions that are considered to be ground-breaking but may not necessarily be completely new.   The incandescent light is a great example of this and we will examine how Edison made electric light bulbs commercially viable:


Incandescent Light Bulb


Requirement Technology Before Edison Edison’s Technology Future Technology
Power Source Local high power source required due to low resistance Power derived from a centralised source
Effective incandescent Material Carbon filament – effective due to high resistance Carbon filament
Vacuum Evacuated chamber Spregel pump – that significantly improved the vacuum, meaning the filament lasted longer as there were less molecules to react with Irving Langmuir found that an inert gas environment produced twice as much light as the vacuum
High resistance to the flow of electric current Carbon filament Carbonised bamboo filament – Could last over 1200 hours Tungsten, which had a higher melting point and gave off more light than carbon or bamboo, has been replaced by fluorescent lights and LEDs




Requirement Technology Before MacMillan MacMillan’s Technology Future Technology
Steering Draisine – Baron Karl Drais – The front wheel and handlebar assembly was pivoted to allow steering –  invented by Baron Karl Drais Similar function to the Draisine but the handlebars are over the front wheel Very similar to the Macmillan version
Wheel Two wooden wheels, with wooden spokes and wooden rims, and an iron band shrunk on the outside of each rim Iron-rimmed wooden wheels Carbon fibre and rubber tyres
Propulsion Running whilst on bike Driving mechanism consisting of crank and pedals Gears added to reduce effort required
Seat Rider sits in the middle in the bike Rider sits in the middle of the bike below the handlebars Rider sits in the middle of the bike level with the handlebars
Brakes Use your feet – no brakes On his to do list! Spoon brakes, duck brakes, rim brakes and disk brakes


Thermos Flask


Requirement Technology Before Thermos Thermos Technology Future Technology
Insulation Vacuum used as an insulator to heat transfer Vacuum used as an insulator to heat transfer Vacuum used as an insulator to heat transfer and reflective lining to reduce radiative heat loss
Outer Case Silver linings to reduce heat transfer and allow the flask to be handled Vacuum-insulated double-walled Pyrex® glass vessel and some years later the stainless steel vacuum bottle Combinations of plastic, glass and metal
Opening and Seal Insulating cork used as a stopper Insulating plastic used as a stopper Vapour cooled neck to reduce evaporation


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