The first thing I can remember 'inventing' was an equation to describe a four dimensional cube (a tesseract), I was 14 years old on an outward-bound course and I was bored one evening. At the age of 17 I 'invented' a security system for my first car, a switch that cut the current to the ignition coil. Thinking of new ways to solve problems was fun and this carried on into my career as an engineer. I never was any good at remembering facts and stuff, but working out how to do stuff – now you're talking!
As a green software engineer in my first job I was working with a load of data that needed to be compressed, so of course I 'invented' a compression algorithm. It was only many years later that I discovered I'd invented an enhanced version of Run Length Encoding, ah, if only Google had been around then.
Some years later my uncle, a bit of an entrepreneur, came to me with the idea of a digital camera; I had to explain that converting an analogue image to a digital representation would require megabytes of storage and huge amounts of computing power to create it. Things that were just not available at the time. But apparently Steve Sasson an engineer at Eastman Kodak was solving the same question at the same time.
Moving on a few years I was working on voice compression on phone calls. Using variable-rate LPC algorithms, my interest was piqued in possible applications for compression of music. Working at the time for a well-known company that amongst other things made mobile phones, I took my idea to some of the hard-core mobile phone gurus. I pitched my genius idea – compressed, high quality music stored on a phone. The response I got was: "Why would anyone want to listen to music on a phone?" I wonder if any of them remember my pitch today?
So what have I learned from all this? Sometimes you may be re-inventing something; sometimes you may have improved something. Sometimes you've the right idea, but don't have access to the right resources. And sometimes you have the right idea but pitch it to the wrong people!
I now work at Cambridge Consultants where innovation and creativity is in our DNA. We help our clients to overcome challenges through innovation. But it's more than just 'invention', in order for our clients to succeed we need to avoid all those pit-falls and minimise the risks. Ideas have to be critically examined, technology risks identified and minimised. We also have to understand the technology landscape – what is the state-of -the-art, has this been done before? We need to look at the commercial requirements of the project, so Steve Sasson may have actually built a digital camera in 1975, but perhaps I was right in saying it was not commercially viable – at that time. And of course you need to pitch your idea well – and sometimes that comes down to creating and working in a culture that support and encourages innovation.
So never stop inventing, never stop creating, one of those ideas will tick all of those boxes. And never stop looking for those who share your vision.
Footnote: Age 14 I'd never heard of tesseracts or hyperplanes but I did work out that a 4D cube has 16 vertices, 32 edges, 24 faces, 8 cubes and … 1 slice of unknown magic.