Back to Top ^

How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

The various techniques used by professional inventors to make problem choices were alike in their emphasis on critical problems. Critical problems are those that, when solved, allow a technological system to become more efficient, increase in size, or grow in complexity. In order to identify such a problem, it is necessary to consider a whole system undergoing technological development, and the professional inventors seemed to have a knack for this. Consider what Edison wrote, for example, about his invention of a system of electric lighting: “It was not only necessary that the lamps should give light and the dynamos generate current, but the lamps must be adapted to the current of the dynamos, and the dynamos must be constructed to give the character of current required by the lamps, and likewise all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine, and the connections between the parts being electrical intead of mechanical. Like any other machine the failure of one part to cooperate properly with the other part disorganizes the whole and renders it inoperative for the purpose intended.

“The problem then that I undertook to solve was … the production of the multifarious apparatus, methods, and devices, each adapted for use with every other, and all forming a comprehensive system.”

Edison presided over the invention and development of the whole system, but even had the emerging system been presided over by others, he would have to have had an overall concept of it and understood the stages of development of its various components. Patent publications, technical journals, and professors could all help. The various inventors furthered the advance of the system when they identified critical problems relating to imbalances—what I call “reverse salients”—in the expanding system. Reverse salients are missing or inadequate components that restrict the development of the whole. Inventors who thought in terms of the whole were particularly adept in detecting these.


Metaphor is associated with genius and inventiveness. Max Black, the Cornell philosopher, has defined metaphor as the “use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary.” A metaphor, then, is a kind of invention. In a metaphor the word whose meaning is being illuminated and the word to which it is compared must interact so that the reader or hearer will project commonplace characteristics associated with the latter onto the former. In the case of the phrase “a mighty fortress is our God,” the reaction is to project selectively onto God certain qualities of a fortress, such as sheltering and being powerful and enduring. If the maker and the recipient of the metaphor do not select similarly from the array of commonplaces, the metaphor will be misleading. (A hearer would be puzzled by the association of God with the spewing of hot oil and the hurling of projectiles.)

The invention of machines, devices, and processes by metaphorical thinking is similar to verbal creation, but the fascinating possibilities have not been much discussed, probably because persons interested in language are rarely interested in technology. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an exception, and in creating Frankenstein ’s monster, she was probably influenced by the metaphor “man is a charged body.” When she was writing the novel, Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were discussing the principle of life and the possibility of creating it by electricity. Like so many of their contemporaries, they were fascinated by Count Alessandro Volta’s famous experiment in which he observed the twitching of a dismembered frog leg when lightning flashed.

Aristotle wrote that mastery of metaphor “is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.” A classic example is Newton’s observation of the similarity between the fall of an apple and the motion of the heavenly bodies. Having found the similarity, he presumed a common cause, so that the metaphor led to discovery. Poetry, like scientific discovery and technological invention, is heavily dependent on metaphor. And metaphors are made also by schizophrenics. Having observed numerous patients, Silvano Arieti, author of Interpretation of Schizophrenia , believes that the schizophrenic seeing similar characteristics in two dissimilar persons or things will sometimes take them to be identical. A patient who longed to be virtuous and who was a virgin identified with Mary, who was also a virgin. It was a case of metaphor gone mad.

The inventor needs the intuition of the metaphor-maker, some of the insight of Newton, the imagination of the poet, and, perhaps, a touch of the irrational obsession of the schizophrenic. The myth of the inventor as mad genius is not without content. Thomas Edison used metaphors extensively. He worked out the quadruplex telegraph, perhaps the most elegant and complex of his inventions, “almost entirely on the basis of an analogy with a water system including pumps, pipes, valves, and water wheels,” according to his son Theodore. Later, thinking metaphorically, Edison conceived of the interaction between existing illuminating-gas distribution systems and the illuminating incandescent-light system he intended to invent.