Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 2:01 PM

Building Blocks for Inventions

Periodically, a popular sentiment resurfaces that innovation is slowing or is altogether dead.  This assessment of innovation has always been wrong in the past, and will continue to be so in the future.  Here’s why.  What do inventors do?  Inventors look at existing situations, existing problems, and new problems, and ask, what can I do with the building blocks I see around me to make or do something new or to solve a problem?  Then, they innovate, and we in the patent community support them.  Every time a new set of building blocks becomes available, a whole new crop of innovations is enabled and encouraged.  Let’s look, briefly, at a few examples in the history of innovation, and then look at today’s and tomorrow’s building blocks.
Back at the dawn of man, people discovered how to make fire.  This building block begat cooking, hardening of wood spear tips, pottery, baking of clay bricks, metal smelting and metallurgy, which inventions qualify as a whole new crop of building blocks.  From these, more inventions arose.  Alchemy gave rise to chemistry, which set forth the elements as building blocks.  Without this, man-made materials would not be nearly so widespread.  The discovery of how to purify and work with aluminum gave rise to aluminum airframes for the dirigible and later airplanes.  The invention of the transistor gave rise to the transistor radio and amplifiers.  Look at what the invention of the integrated circuit did, as a building block.  The computer, as a building block gave rise to an entire class of inventions that are software-related.  Now that computers are interconnected over the Internet, there is an explosion of Internet-related inventions and patents, covering software and hardware.  LEDs, which were originally used for indicator lamps, developed into alphanumeric displays and are now used as backlighting for liquid crystal display televisions and early generation replacements for the venerable incandescent light bulb.  I could go on for days and weeks about this.
Here are some new building blocks.  The human genome was recently mapped.  Nanotechnology structures are being developed.  A brain-mapping project will soon get underway.  Robotics technology has been in industry and in laboratories for a while, but is not yet general-purpose.  The driverless car has entered public roadways and is poised to become widespread.  What new innovations, technologies, patents, industries and changes to our lives will come from these building blocks and the inventors who ask, what can I/we do with that?  I can hardly wait to find out.

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