Sparks Flew

Find an innovator with an incentive

Innovators are rarely motivated merely by the thought of their final product. Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone transformed the world. Yet in the Boston, Massachusetts of the 1870s, he was just a young Scottish immigrant, whose mother had been deaf, and who now worked as a tutor of the deaf, keen to help them succeed in life.

His favourite student was older than the rest, already close to 20. This was Mabel Hubbard. He'd regularly taught his students to touch their own throats lightly, and then his, to feel different sounds being produced. With Mabel that formal contact was different. Each of them - though embarrassed to say anything - later described in letters what they had felt. He had complimented her on her voice ("Nobody had told me that before," she wrote, overwhelmed), and as the weeks went by they communicated more and more - racing happily through the snow to and from the carriage bringing her to his classes.

But she was wealthy and he was not. He was one of the immigrants who had arrived on one of the new-style steam ships. Her family, by contrast, owned a good deal of downtown Boston, and her father seems to have made an even greater fortune through judicious investments during and after the civil war. When Bell had gone to their summer home on Nantucket to declare his hand, her mother hadn't let him in, despite the rainstorm drenching him. Her daughter was uninterested in his affections, she insisted, and the family would appreciate it if he accepted their wishes and stayed away.

In time he discovered that the mother had been lying. Young Mabel was desperate to spend more time with this kind man, who treated her so gently. But how could he convince the family to let him try again?

That was when he resolved to come up with a great invention. It would make him rich and famous, and, most importantly, allow him to get through the front doors of the Hubbard family's grand Nantucket home, finally giving him the chance to court young Mabel. For a young male on his own in a new country, that's one of the most powerful motivations there can be.

Immerse your innovator in the hot new thing

For Bell, it was clear what the hot new thing of the mid-1870s was. Telegraphs had been around for decades, transforming the world by - in the words of the estimable author Tom Standage - acting like a Victorian internet. With telegraphs, centralised headquarters could run hugely dispersed corporations. Rail systems could be synchronised across time zones; grain could be traded across oceans.

But building telegraph lines was expensive, which is where the hot new thing came in. What if someone could find a way to improve the telegraph, so that several distinct signals could be jammed down a single line at once? Instantly the world's communication infrastructure would be doubled, or perhaps even tripled. In all the years until Bell fell in love with Mabel, that largely had remained just a dream.

This is what Bell resolved to solve. He'd go down in history as creator of the multiplex telegraph. He told his friends, found space in a workshop and got to work.

When he has learnt all that, let him work on something 'useless'

This is probably the most important - and hardest - innovation task of all. If an individual just stays at the cutting edge, how can he stand out? Everyone else who is trying to innovate is at that same cutting edge. To make an important breakthrough, one has to leap from there in an unexpected direction - hopping off to the side, like the knight's jump in chess.

Big organisations almost always fail here, because - quite understandably - they have no idea why someone would leave a perfectly promising area of research. This is why quiet space, and at least a little bit of unmonitored time, is so important. It's a tough call for organisations, because most individuals given this space and time will end up wasting it. But biologists have been struck at the way evolution doesn't happen fastest in high-stress environments. Where gazelles are desperate to flee lions, there is little time for only partial modifications to flourish. But think what happened after the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. The hitherto insignificant lineage of the mammals had the safety to flourish. Tentative experiments could be built up and odd life forms - bats that used echo-location; giant rhinoceroses - could come into being.

Bell was working largely on his own, so he could head off on one of these diversions. He wasn't just interested in getting more clicks coming out of a telegraph. He had spent his life trying to make the sounds that most people could hear somehow comprehensible to the deaf. That's why he had Mabel and his other students lightly touching speakers' throats, to feel the changing vibrations.

He became interested in transmitting voices. To everyone else this was useless, of course. Telegraphs transmitted clicks very quickly. How could a machine that didn't leave a punched tape record of what was sent be of any use?

Now the trick: tell your innovator to try the reverse of what everyone else is doing

What most telegraph developers had been doing was sending a fast and a slow series of clicks along a telegraph line at the same time. If you've ever heard someone drum out a fast pattern of beats with their right hand, and a slow pattern with their left, you know how easy it is to separate the two patterns in your head. That's what the telegraph researchers were doing. They attached different tuning forks to their receiving telegraph units, to vibrate as the different clicks came in. Each tuning fork could cut a different punched tape.

Bell reversed the idea. Why think about electrical signals going in, and cold, mechanical sound vibrations coming out? Instead, he began to think about human sound vibrations at the start of the process as well as at the end.

He practised making a stiff piece of parchment - or even very thin metal - start to vibrate when he leaned forward and spoke against it. It took several months for him to become skilled at introducing that human vibration into an electric wire. But he overcame that obstacle easily - as soon as he knew that's what he wanted to do.

It is a common technique. When James Black, a renowned British scientist, began his research at ICI on heart medications in the 1950s, everyone knew that nerve signals regulated the heart. Some sped up the heart, while others slowed it down - like the accelerator and brake on a car. To calm an over-speeding heart, it seemed obvious that you had to look at the nerve signals that fed into the "brakes". Black reversed that, and instead thought about ways of blocking the accelerator. This led to his creation of beta-blockers - one of the highest-earning pharmaceutical discoveries of the 20th century.

In a similar way, think of all the firms that until recently assumed that success on the internet would come from sending out better and better offerings, attuned to that new environment. YouTube and Wikipedia reversed that. User-generated content seems an obvious development now. Most innovations do once someone else has come up with them.

Give your innovator an aggressive protector

New fields are always ripe for predators. This is why lawyers in Silicon Valley get rich. Bell was a kindly, trusting young man. Left to his own devices, he and his work would probably have ended up as a footnote in history (as indeed happened to several other individuals who came up with similar inventions to his, in Italy and elsewhere).

But Mabel's father, Bell's father-in-law (yes, he got the girl in the end) had triumphed in an environment - the East Coast financial world after the US Civil War - where aggression, paranoia and distrust were indispensable skills. Once Bell was close to success, his father-in-law worked to safeguard his family's fortunes: lawyers, threats, not-quite-legal inside knowledge and all the other tools that would help in protecting the young man's product were employed to shepherd it along. That was especially important, because there is another, very different approach to success that the innovator around the corner is probably following.

Your innovator could simply copy other people's ideas

Here we meet Thomas Edison, a young man - almost exactly Bell's age; they were both in their late twenties at this time - who had a very different view of life. He had grown up poor, and resentful; even one of his best friends observed that he "had a vacuum where his conscience ought to be".

Edison was ingenious and extremely diligent; at this stage only rarely was he a true creator. A rare conjunction of events had led Bell to the telephone: his experience with educating the deaf, his desperate love for Mabel, and all the rest. Edison was an expert on telegraphs, but lacked the rest. He would have disliked Bell enough for his easy personality; because of his creativity, he resented him even more. When William Orton, the head of Western Union, asked Edison if he could usurp Bell's patent, by replicating the telephone in some other manner, there was no delay in getting a positive reply.

Tell him to develop a dictatorial streak

This principle is not one management theorists today encourage. But that's because they don't know any better. I've spent a fair bit of time at top research or innovation units in the US and Europe, and, although almost everyone's friendly, it is always clear who makes decisions. In a good lab there might be several separate groups working on distinct topics, but those sub-units have clear hierarchies too. Even Bell, with his one assistant, Thomas Watson, always made it clear that he was the one who decided.

Edison was even blunter. He was rich, his newest juniors weren't, and he let them know it. In pure science, probably the best research institute of all time was Cambridge University's Cavendish lab under Ernest Rutherford. He bellowed out his superiority for all to acknowledge: letting people know of his visits to important government ministries, his invitations to prestigious conferences, his high salary, and unique access to famous visitors.

But make sure he listens

That's the twist. Seeing the head of a lab (and his chief assistants) earn much more than you do is a great motivator - so long as you know you have a chance of getting there yourself. Nathan Myhrvold was very wealthy as head of Microsoft research, but he was also approachable, and open to sharing credit. You could see younger staff thinking: I want what he has. Ernest Rutherford blustered, but also encouraged talent: more than half a dozen of his students received Nobel prizes. It is similar to the way juniors in law firms or large consultancies only have to overhear senior partners talk about their second homes in the Alps, before deciding that staying until midnight again really isn't so bad.

Edison was soulless to the people he stole from. But he was the fairest of taskmasters to the diverse hires - be they from the London slums, or American prairie farms - who ended up at his lab. Improving on Bell's invention was easy with them around. He listened to all sensible suggestions. And whenever he, or his staff, had an idea, they helped him build and test it. He wasn't always right, but there was one thing he did understand.

Tell your innovator to make plenty of mistakes and make them quickly

Edison always encouraged his assistants to make small trial models of whatever he was investigating. It was an excellent way to see what worked, or didn't. (Bell had done the same, working largely on his own.) In a new field, it's almost impossible to work out everything from theoretical principles. When you build a prototype, flaws reveal themselves.

That was especially important in one of Edison's next projects. Many inventors around the world had created light bulbs, for it was well known that if you heat a piece of metal, it glows. An iron stove will glow red hot; a thin filament in a bulb can glow white hot, giving off enough light to see by. The St Petersburg docks were lit by simple light bulbs several years before Edison began his research.

But all those bulbs burnt out quickly. Edison didn't try utterly random filaments - there would be far too many possibilities - but he still tried a large number. Platinum seemed good at first, because it has a high melting point. But the prototyping quickly showed that it got too hot to work with, so he dropped it. Nickel got too bright. Ordinary cotton threads failed, but just before they did, right when they were charring, one of his assistants noticed that they seemed oddly stable. Edison quickly had his team explore that, and soon he had a decent filament; they found an even tougher bamboo, and with that they had a better filament. The Russian lights had burnt out in under 10 hours; certain English efforts had lasted a few dozen hours; Edison's Japanese bamboo lasted 1,500 hours.

Warn him not to lose his head

After creating a useable light bulb, Edison went on to create an entire electricity distribution system: generators and transmission lines and underground insulators and much else.

Such success is dangerous enough for ordinary people. For someone with Edison's insecurities - let alone his persistence - it was worse. He decided to create another field from scratch, just the way he'd done before. This time it would be even bigger: using electricity to crush rock, and extract its metal ores.

But old infrastructures have a vastly longer life than supposed. Steam-powered ore separation had already been developed to a high level. Edison never got his electrically run techniques to compete on price. He wasted years, and lost a fortune.

Two generations later, and - in large part through the work of Bell, Edison and their contemporaries - the world was transformed. Light bulbs led to cathode ray tubes, which led to the discovery of the electron, which led to our modern understanding of the atom. Telephones transformed corporations, and entire cities. Radios shrank so much that by 1940 an individual man, if he were strong, could strap one on his back and carry it and its supporting batteries entirely on his own.

The success of grand centralised research and development projects in the second world war - most notably, radar, and the atomic bomb - made big research and development units more popular than ever. Although most of their successes followed the patterns we've seen, several new innovation rules emerged.

Give your innovators space - and if you don't, hope they grab it for themselves

Perhaps the greatest of all discoveries of the immediate post-war period came from Bell Labs. The key hires were the gentle John Bardeen, and the Oregon frontiersman Walter Brattain (as a youngster he'd spent months on a horse, with a rifle across his lap, guarding isolated cattle herds). Bardeen was a theorist, who respected the people around him; Brattain had become a skilled experimenter. Together they were using all the techniques we've seen, such as developing an expertise in their chosen new field of studying crystals that only sometimes conducted electricity, and regularly prototyping their provisional inventions. But when they reached the stage of meandering sideways, into seemingly "useless" work, they were blocked by their superiors.

Their immediate supervisor, William Shockley, didn't respect their skills, and was certain that a different approach was needed. Luckily though, Bell Labs was big enough that they could "hide": find a budget, and workspace, safely away from anyone else's direct supervision. Pretty soon they began to play with reversing what everyone knew - they started looking not at how electrons moved through a crystal, but how the holes that were left behind seemed to move just as well. That allowed them to modify the inside of a solid crystal at will, so that sometimes it would push electricity along, while at other times it would block it. The result, in December 1947, was the world's first transistor: an ultra-miniaturised "switch" that could cut off a signal - or amplify it.

At Lockheed, one group of engineers went further and managed to sequester themselves away in a group of buildings near the Burbank airport, so much so that they existed almost as a firm within the firm. As the years went by they produced aircraft of a kind never seen before: in the 1950s, a spy plane that could glide at a height of almost 20 kilometres; in the 1960s another that was safe anywhere, without armaments, because it could fly at Mach 3. Even better, they constructed these in a half or a third the time of conventional projects. So long as that success continued, Lockheed's main managers let this self-named "Skunk Works" be.

However clever your innovator is, encourage him to turn to his elders for help

The Skunk Works' greatest achievement began in 1973, when a young radar specialist brought in a nearly decade-old Russian paper on seemingly irrelevant items in electromagnetic theory which, near its end, suggested that one could predict the radar reflections of any flat sheet just by looking at its shape. The specialist thought that they could use that to work out the shape of an aircraft that would be invisible to radar.

Programming a computer to do that was difficult, so the Skunk Works brought in Bill Schroeder to help. Schroeder had been born in the 19th century, and was in his eighties.

He made the breakthrough in five weeks. Once construction began, the problem of getting the exhaust pipes to be shaped as flat panels seemed insuperable.

A structural engineer whose experience went back to designing second world war fighters took charge of that problem. He was as good as Schroeder.

Two years later the Skunk Works brought a 38-foot-long model to the US Air Force's radar test range at White Sands, in New Mexico. It was the earliest outing of what would soon be named the F-117 Stealth fighter. Five large radar dishes were aimed directly at it, from less than half a mile away. The Air Force radar technicians manning the dishes could detect the pole the aircraft was supposed to be mounted on, of course, but there was no sign of the plane. Bewildered, they told the Skunk Works engineers to put their model back on the pole - that it must have fallen off.

But it hadn't. None of the five powerful radar sets could see it. The Stealth fighter worked.

And if all your innovators fail to produce, steal someone else's

Jonathan Ive is a British industrial designer who never made much of a mark when he trained in Newcastle or when he went to work on wash basin design in London. He had design ideas that no one understood. Then he moved to California, and began work at Apple, and there he found the home he'd sought.

Many companies had MP3 players before Apple began their own project to create one in 2000. But the other ones weren't distinctive. Apple's had to be. Everyone knew - the temper tantrums were hard to miss - how the company's driving force, Steve Jobs, felt about hi-tech products. Being stylish wasn't enough. They had to be pleasing to look at, but even more pleasing when used.

Companies often fumble great products. But when someone like Ive - who became chief industrial designer on the iPod - finds a home like Apple, everything meshes. The trick is to keep looking.

(And for anyone who objects to the persistent use of "he" in the rules above, that's just because that's the way it's generally been until now. It doesn't have to be: the same applies to women. Just ask Marie Curie.)

David Bodanis is an author and consultant to companies on innovation. He received the 2006 Aventis Prize for popular science writing for his book "Electric Universe - How Electricity Switched on the Modern World".

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007