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How Inventors Think

We marvel at what they create-here’s how inventors think and the five most common traits they share.

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How Inventors Think

Discover how inventors think. 

To invent, said Thomas Edison, you need two things: “A good imagination and a pile of junk.”

In the case of Mike Kelly, add a Canadian storm: It was a cold winter day in 1986 when Kelly, his windshield wipers and his career path were all shaken up. Snow was falling and ice was building up on his wiper blades as he drove along the Ottawa Queensway. He reached forward out the car window, trying to grab the wiper to shake off the ice. Instead, with his attention diverted, he nearly ran into a guardrail.

Back home later that day, Kelly, a sales manager for a high-tech company, was curious about how you could safely knock ice off the wiper by flipping a switch inside the car.

In his garage, he duct-taped an electric back massager to his wiper and plugged it in so it would shake the wiper. “I was trying to simulate what I had done manually,” says Kelly. But the massage unit was too powerful. “It nearly broke my windshield,” he recalls.

Still, the test planted a seed. Sixteen years and more than 100 prototypes later, Kelly’s Shaker Wiper De-icer hit the market. An industrial version of the product is now sold to the trucking industry and a consumer version is available through Ford dealerships. The Shaker, a small cylinder of about 21⁄2 centimetres in diameter, clamps to an existing wiper arm and consists of a motor, an unbalanced weight and a switch for inside the vehicle. Activating the motor spins the weight, which causes the wiper to vibrate and, in turn, the ice to dislodge.

Those are the device’s inner workings. Now for its inventor’s inner workings: Kelly was inspired by his near-crash, a desire to do good and the challenge of solving a problem. “Life would be boring, otherwise,” he says. He started with a “pile of junk”-a massager and duct tape-and added the crucial raw material, his imagination.

Just what sparks that imagination and turns the gears in the mind of the inventor? Keep reading to find the five ways that inventors think.

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How Inventors Think: They Ask, “What if?”

How inventors think: they ask “what if?”. 

The impulse to invent has roots in a restless nature, in a need to tinker just for the sake of seeing the result.

That was the case for Willard Boyle, a member of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, who, while at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1969, co-designed the  “charge-coupled device” (CCD)  with George Smith. 

The light-sensitive chip, which can store and reproduce images, went on to have applications in everything from digital cameras to the Hubble telescope.

At the time, however, the CCD had no set function. Boyle simply was intrigued by the opportunity to examine new processes-to apply changes to a system and observe what happens. “There was a lot of ‘What if?'” says Boyle, now 84 and retired in Nova Scotia.

Boyle had asked “What if?” since he was a boy in northern Quebec. One day when he was about 12, he was listening to a battery-powered radio and wanted to improve the reception. What if, he thought, he rigged a wire from the radio to the phone line? The result was even more amazing than he had anticipated: In addition to improved reception, sometimes the radio would pick up phone conversations from all over town.

To Boyle, the path from that crude experiment to his career as a physicist is clear: “It’s about living a life of curiosity.”

As a boy in Winnipeg, Brad Caruk had a similar compulsion to probe, a need to know. What if he combined a GI Joe, toy jeep, clock motor, infrared sensor, can opener, hook and fishing line? The result was a full-motion war scenario. Caruk’s room overflowed with electronic parts. “My mom called it an inventor’s junk room,” he recalls. Caruk grew up to be a computer animator, starting up the company Digital Pictureworks at 23.

He later became a partner in SideTrack Technologies, where he designed a method of showing videolike ads on the walls of dark subway tunnels: Motion-sensitive lights were used to illuminate a series of static images as the train passed. The ads are now created using multiple bars of blinking LED lights; SideTrack has deals with subway systems from Boston to Brazil.

In some ways, Caruk still feels like that boy in the bedroom, forever tinkering. “My hobbies have become my business,” he says.

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How Inventors Think: The Process

How inventors think: they delight in the process. 

Inventions can take years to come to fruition, so inventors must have a supreme ability to delay gratification, right? On the contrary: Although a workable invention seems like the ultimate payoff, the rewards for inventors are constant.

“Every step you take is a eureka moment,” says Anina Sakaguchi, who graduated from the University of Guelph with a degree in biological engineering and is now pursuing a Master’s of Environmental Science at the University of Toronto.

At Guelph, Sakaguchi was part of a student team that won the 2008 Dyson Canada Design Competition for engineering a novel bicycle braking system that could work with one hand. She says each new version of the design offered another chance to ask the question: “How do I make it better?” Triumphs and roadblocks can be equally invigorating. “The public sees the end product, but it’s how you get there that interests me,” says Sakaguchi. “Every answer leads to other questions, and that’s exciting.”

The notion that the process of discovery is the gratification hits upon a key aspect of how inventors think, suggests Marilyn Jones-Gotman, a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute. “If you’re intellectually curious,” she says, “the voyage is at least as rewarding as arriving at the end point.”

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How Inventors Think: See the World Differently

How inventors think: they see the world differently. 

Given a pot and a wooden spoon, you may think of cooking soup, but a child may see a musical instrument. The kid banging on a pot essentially is an inventor, says Toronto’s Mark Ellwood, former head of the Inventors’ Alliance of Canada. “That’s what inventors do,” he says. “They see new possibilities, and don’t follow convention.”

Ellwood’s “new possibility,” the TimeCorder, is a hand-held tool incorporating 26 electronic stopwatches that allow people to easily track distinct tasks throughout their workdays. Supplied to Ellwood’s corporate clients, this productivity tracking device is meant to be used for two weeks, after which Ellwood produces a time-usage study.

He says inventors need to balance logic and intellect with a truly open mind-in short, to think like children: “Children don’t put the brakes on their thinking.”

So a messy colouring book can be like an inventor’s notepad. “For inventors, thinking outside the box is like colouring outside the lines,” Ellwood says. “That’s where genuine creativity comes in.”

Katie Bell, who was on the winning design team with Sakaguchi, agrees. She says the most creative inventors retain a sense of childlike wonder about the world around them. She recalls a time in university, watching from the Engineering building as workers at a construction site operated a large crane. “I’d think about the mechanics of the crane, how it lifts, and about the operator in his cab with his joystick,” says Bell. “I was just mesmerized.”

It’s the kind of thing that would intrigue a child-or a 22-year-old budding inventor, which Bell was at the time. “Children don’t have inhibitions, and they ask questions about everything,” says Bell, now a research-and-development engineer at a medical-device firm in Mississauga. “At some point, that can get muffled. But inventors foster those traits.”

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How Inventors Think: Dreamers

How inventors think: they are dreamers. 

Are inventors more creative than the rest of us? Not necessarily, says psychology researcher Robert Epstein, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, and former editor of Psychology Today magazine. Many of us have thought up fascinating and potentially quite marketable ideas, “but inventors are risk takers,” says Epstein. “They pay attention to those ideas, say them aloud and act on them.”

In essence, he says, inventors are dreamers who try to realize their dreams: “At some point, we’re told to stop daydreaming-but inventors never stop, and they pay close attention to their dreams.”

That can mean being in tune with, and willing to explore, bizarre ideas taken directly from your dreams.

Epstein describes a method used by Thomas Edison, who’d sit in a chair with ball bearings in his hand and try to nap. Soon, he would enter the  “hypnagogic state,” between wakefulness and sleep, when many people have visual and auditory hallucinations. When Edison was relaxed enough, the ball bearings would drop to the floor, waking him, and he’d start jotting down the ideas that had popped into his head while he was in that dreamlike state. 

“Inventive people come up with all sorts of interesting connections that don’t always seem logical, but now and then there are gems,” says Epstein.

Mike Kelly sleeps with a pen by his bed and often wakes up with ideas that he then writes down. Some key revisions to the Shaker Wiper De-icer, including how it attaches to the windshield-wiper arm, came to him in his sleep. “Thoughts will invade your subconscious,” he says.

Any creative person-whether inventor, painter, author or other-is a dreamer in a larger sense, says physicist Willard Boyle. Your dreams must be grounded in reality (as in, that gizmo had better be workable), but you need an equal dose of faith-faith that society eventually will respond to you, whether that means buying your painting, reading your book or manufacturing your product.

“You always have to stay hopeful and positive,” says Boyle.

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How Inventors Think: They Aren’t Easily Discouraged

How inventors think: they aren’t easily discouraged. 

Inventing can be a solitary path, one that demands “intellectual self-confidence,” says Jones-Gotman.

When Kelly had a crude prototype of the Shaker, he arranged meetings with five automotive-equipment manufacturers. In one meeting, he recalls, a representative broke up laughing when he watched Kelly’s presentation: “That was such a motivator.”

But rejection is common. James Dyson decided to make the vacuum cleaner that now bears his name only after being turned down by the big vacuum manufacturers. It took him five years and 5,127 prototypes. “You need the ability to persevere,” he says.

Or, as Rob Walker puts it, one of the most important traits in any inventor is sheer tenacity. The SideTrack subway-ad technology had its genesis when Walker, Brad Caruk’s partner, was working in marketing for an aerospace company. Walker was riding the metro in Paris, looking out at the dark, blank tunnel, and had an idea: “If you could space a bunch of images on the wall and drive by them at the right speed, could you get the pictures to animate, like a child’s flip book?”

Walker and Caruk recall their first “real world test.” They printed 75 posters and attached them to stakes, which they hammered into the ground beside a Winnipeg boulevard. Driving along the road in a van, with the side door open and strobe lights flashing, they videoed the posters. When they checked the results, they had full-motion video: The concept worked.

It was exhilarating, a vindication-and that’s the feeling inventors cling to, Walker says. They easily could become discouraged, by assuming that if their idea is so good, someone else must have it; or by letting naysayers shoot them down.

To be a successful inventor, says Walker, remember the parable of the fleas in the jar: These fleas will start to jump, and will hit the jar lid. As time passes, they’ll still jump, but not as high, knowing they can’t escape. Eventually, you can remove the lid, but the fleas still won’t jump as high as possible. Although they could escape, they are trapped by their own sense of confinement.

“I’m not a flea in a jar,” says Walker -and neither is any other inventor who endures. That might be the keenest insight yet into the mind of the inventor. “They don’t put limitations on themselves, or let their surroundings-or anyone else-limit them.”

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