Inventors are people who invent things. They create new and unique processes or products, or improve upon existing ones to make something new and unique. The things that they create are known as inventions.
An invention might be as a one-off: for example, some people invent (or improve upon) just one single process or product in their lifetime. However, many others are or have been serial inventors. They come up with lots of different ideas, some of which have changed the world.
Examples of inventors
There are many examples of inventors throughout history, and many were very much serial inventors:
Thomas Edison is best known for inventing the light bulb. However, he actually held over 1,000 US patents, and established the world’s first industrial research laboratory.
Barnes Wallis invented the ‘bouncing bomb’, used in the ‘Dambusters’ raid against the Ruhr dams during World War Two. However, he also designed a geodetic airframe for airships, which was used in several World War Two airplanes, including the Wellington bomber, and was instrumental in designing several other types of bomb.
Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps one of the world’s best known serial inventors. His ideas were eclectic and ranged widely from flying machines through to solar power generators and calculators.
On the face of it, these men had little in common except their status as inventors. However, it seems likely that they also shared some common traits and skills that enabled them to succeed.
Skills for Inventors
There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to inventors.
Inventors may be employed, like Barnes Wallis. However, they may also be developing their ideas in their own time, a bit like Leonardo da Vinci. A successful inventor of this kind might then sell their idea to a business, or go on to become an entrepreneur, by setting up their own business to market their own invention.
Different types of inventors may need slightly different skills—but there is a common core that they will all share.
1. Innovation Skills
Perhaps the first and most obvious area for inventors is to be able to innovate.
Innovation was defined by Rosabeth Kanter as:
“The process of bringing any new, problem-solving idea into use… Innovation is the generation, acceptance and implementation of new ideas, processes, products or services.”
It therefore includes both generating new ideas to solve problems, and turning them into practical solutions. There are several different types of innovation, including basic research, sustaining innovation (also often known as incremental innovation because it tends to happen by improving on existing products or processes), and disruptive innovation (when new competitors join existing marketplaces and do things differently).
All these need both ideas that provide practical solutions to problems. The art of innovation lies in correctly defining the problem, and then finding a new way to solve it.
There is, after all, no point in reinventing the wheel. An inventor therefore needs to find a problem that is currently unsolved, and then identify a solution.
2. Creative Thinking Skills
Creative thinking is the art of looking at situations in new ways, and therefore being able to identify new solutions.
Some people think creatively quite naturally: their brains simply work that way. However, many people need to use creative thinking techniques such as brainstorming or lateral thinking techniques to help engage the more creative side of their brain. It may take a while, but with practice, most people can develop these skills. They can then start to find new and more creative solutions to problems—or even realise that there may not be a problem at all!
Inventors need to have a reasonable amount of resilience: that quality of ‘bounce-back-ability’ that will enable them to keep going despite setbacks.
Inventing is not always easy or straightforward, and it takes time. There are likely to be many hurdles, from difficulties in developing your idea, through to problems persuading other people of its merits.
Case study: The Dyson Story
James Dyson, the inventor of the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner has gone down in history for his sheer resilience.
Dyson first started work on his vacuum cleaner in 1978. It took him five years, and over 5,000 prototypes, before he had a suitable model. However, the need for resilience doesn’t stop there. Dyson could not find a manufacturer for his product, because of its potential impact on sales of bags for vacuum cleaners. He ended up setting up his own company to manufacture his product.
He commented once:
“I've always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they've had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.”
4. Communication Skills
Communication skills are a vital set of skills for most people, including inventors.
Inventors need to be able to communicate orally and in writing for many purposes. In particular, they must be able to explain their ideas clearly and succinctly to other people.
One particular area where communication skills may be helpful is in ‘pitching’ your invention to potential investors. In this process, you have to present your idea to investors in such a way that they are convinced by your case, and agree to invest. This therefore requires both good communication skills, and strong persuasion and influencing skills.
From Inventor to Entrepreneur: Developing a Business
Inventors may choose to take their invention to the next level themselves, by becoming an entrepreneur and setting up their own business.
If so, they will need to consider how they want to develop their idea (and our page on developing a business idea may be helpful). In particular, they may wish to think about whether they licence their idea (for example, by taking out a patent), or use it themselves (perhaps keeping it as a ‘trade secret’).
Support with patent applications
If you are considering taking out a patent, it is a good idea to talk to an experienced registered patent attorney. They can advise on the best way to manage the process—and indeed, whether it is necessary or advisable.
There are also other companies that can provide support through the patent application process, such as InventHelp patent services.
Successful entrepreneurs also have a wide range of skills, which are included in our page on Entrepreneurial Skills.
A Final Thought
James Dyson may have made the journey from inventor to entrepreneur to billionaire captain of industry. However, many other inventors have no wish to make that journey. They are happy to simply continue inventing—and that’s absolutely fine.