You hear the term all the time, but what is innovation? It’s something new, a novel idea or product or practice – but it’s much more than that as well. To be considered an innovation, it has to have impact. Thus, not all inventions are innovations. An invention is just any old new idea or product, regardless of whether the new thing has any impact on the world. Innovation, on the other, has impact. It alters markets, people, and society. It changes business and knocks down barriers.
Innovation isn’t necessarily new technology or a new invention. Sometimes it’s just a better application of an old invention. For instance, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. In fact, he didn’t even invent the assembly line. However, he was the first to combine the two for the purpose of making affordable cars that made them available to the middle class. Thus, his automobile manufacturing methods and process became innovations that changed the world.
Interestingly, the popularity of the word “innovation” is relatively recent. The word “novation” first appeared in the 1200’s in legal texts, as a word for describing a new or renewed contract. In the 1500’s and 1600’s, in Europe the whole concept of innovation was considering frightening and heretic. At that time, new ideas were generally considered bad, and being called an innovator would have been an insult.
The term didn’t begin getting used in reference to science, inventions, and industry until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s. First, invention became a positive term. The positive portrayal of industrialization and new technology made invention into something positive. Finally, being an inventor was no longer an insult.
Innovation didn’t become an important and popular word until the 1900’s. Some attribute the modern understanding of the word “innovation” to an Austrian economist named Joseph Schumpeter. In 1939 Schumpeter offered definitions of “invention” and “innovation” that seem to have stuck with us till today. He saw invention as the creation of something new without any consideration of its economic influence or impact. Innovation, on the other hand, he saw as the molding of inventions into profitable business models.
The interesting thing about the evolution of the popularity of the term is that some economists say that there are actually fewer important innovations today – since the term has become a buzzword – than there were 50 years ago. For instance, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen says that there was tons of innovation from 1870 to 1970, but that since then there hasn’t actually been as much innovation as we think. (Interestingly, it was right around the time that Cowen says our innovativeness decreased – around 1970 – that Google Ngrams says the word “innovation” surpassed the word “invention” in usage.)
Cowen told The Atlantic, “There’s too much self-congratulations. Americans have this self-image that we’re the great inventors, [but] we’ve dropped the ball in many areas. We also see a lot of social tolerance — people confuse that with technological breakthroughs. [They have] a vague sense that things are getting better.”
While the popularization of the term “innovation” is fairly modern, as Cowen indicates, history is packed with world-changing innovations – even if they weren’t called innovations at the time. We tend to associate the term “innovation” with modern creations, like smartphones, tablets, or the internet. In fact, many of the innovations we use and rely on in our daily lives are much, much older than that.
For example, the printing press. Today we might not really think of it as an innovation because the concept of printing books is not new to us. (In fact, now when we think of innovations in regards to reading material, we tend to think of the way in which the internet and e-readers have eroded the edges of the printing industry.) However, in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was a massive, ground-shaking innovation.
Prior to the invention of the printing press, books had been printed by hand. However, when Gutenberg combined an existing technology to mold lead alloy with the concept of creating type pieces, he essentially developed an assembly line method for producing books. By the end of 1600, over two million new books had been printed using Gutenberg’s printing press.
The printing press made books – and the knowledge they contained – available to people who were not in the rich, ruling classes. The ensuing spread of knowledge prompted the Age of Enlightenment. In 1518, Lutherans used printing presses to copy and distribute Martin Luther’s famous “Ninety-Five Theses.” That important document prompted the Protestant Reformation, as well as decades of fighting. The printing press became an important tool for revolution, distribution of information, and changing the world.
Another old invention that was a hugely impactful innovation is the magnetic compass. Like the printing press, the compass has been superseded by other technologies (namely GPS). The compass was invented in China in the 1300’s and when the technology spread to Europe it prompted the Age of Discovery that led to global interaction.
Another now-outdated innovation is the telegraph. The telegraph combined the use of electricity with Morse code in order to transmit messages around the world. It created an era of instant cross-country communication that hadn’t previously existed. In had an immense impact on everything from government to banking to war to news.
The magnifying lens is an innovation that also changed the world. Before the invention of the magnifying lens, people with bad vision just couldn’t see. (At least there weren’t any cars around for near-blind people to drive, though!) If your vision started to get worse as you aged, that was it. There was no solution. There was no corrective vision wear. In the 13th century, though, that all changed thanks to the innovation of putting magnifying lenses in front of one’s eyes to correct vision problems.
Then, in the 1500’s, people began using lenses in telescopes and microscopes, opening up a whole new world of understanding and possibility. Magnifying lenses enabled Galileo to show that the earth revolves around the sun, enabled Robert Hooke to discover the existence of cells, and enabled Anton van Leeuwenhoek to discover bacteria and the entire concept of germs.
Some other huge innovations in history include things like the steam engine, antibiotics, transistors, the domestication of horses, the wheel, paper currency, light bulbs, and the Bessemer Process for making steel. Each of these things stepped beyond the realm of invention and into the realm of innovation because of their impact on the world. That’s what innovation is really about – impact.