Editorial Feature

What Does It Take To Be An Inventor?

Two inventors on how they approach their work

Aside from good timing and a bit of luck, it’s tricky to say exactly what it takes to be a successful inventor. Opportunity combined with numerous problem-solving skills and personality traits come into play for people to invent things that can change the world.

Below, two inventors talk about their experiences, touching upon the skills they’ve picked up and how they approach their work. While a life of inventing may seem like a distant dream to many, what Mary Ann Horton and Jane ni Dhulchaointigh demonstrate is that they’re only human and even now, they’re still continually learning new things along the way.

Mary Ann Horton

California-based inventor and computer scientist Mary Ann Horton is a Usenet and internet pioneer. Among her many achievements, she is credited with creating the first email attachment tool in the 1980s. Horton is also a transgender educator and activist and she currently serves as a consultant on transgender workplace issues and on UNIX and internet technology. Here she talks about what she’s learnt over the years.

For me the word ‘inventor’, is about spotting a need that isn’t currently being met, and creating a solution to meet that need.

With a new project, it all starts with a problem: “What I need is to do X here. Now how do we do X?” It becomes a design problem. Once I have the vision, I’ll create a prototype. Sometimes this is easy – if I Google what I’m looking for, somebody may already have built it, often there is a product for sale. Or perhaps there is a product that partially meets the need. You can reach higher if you stand on the shoulders of others than on their toes.

Mary Ann Horton with her UUENCODE email attachment invention

Sometimes I build a program, and nobody wants to use it, not even me. It’s still fun writing it, but I’ll stop putting effort into it. Once at Berkeley I didn’t like something about my classmate Eric Schienbrood’s “more” command, so I rewrote it one night. Eric was hurt, and I realized I’d overstepped my bounds. I threw away my version and his lived on. I learned to work with people instead of just forging out on my own.

Occasionally I’ve written a program or a document and then accidentally deleted my work. That’s a sad moment, to lose work on something I care about. But I’ve learned that if I dig right back in, and do it again, the next time it always comes out better.

An inventor needs ideas, and the vision to design a solution around those ideas. You need a broad set of skills to design the solution. You need experience with these skills to know what will work and what won’t. You can save a lot of time if you can see the trouble spots in advance.

Of course, you also need persistence. It can take a long time to finish a project. As Thomas Edison said: “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Some of this can be taught. Some you pick up with experience. The creative part, coming up with the ideas, you can’t really teach that.

I’ve never seen a job opening for an “inventor”. Jobs are there to help a business meet its business needs. You spend most of your time focused on those business needs. Every once in a while that creative spark happens and there’s a chance to invent something new.

My advice to aspiring inventors would be, get your education and learn a broad set of useful skills. Look for opportunities and learn to spot them. It helps if you’ve chosen a field that’s both useful to the world and fun for you.

Jane ní Dhulchaointigh

Jane ní Dhulchaointigh is an Irish artist and inventor. In 2018, she won the European Inventor Award for Small and Medium Enterprises for Sugru, a mouldable glue that was described by Time magazine as one of the world's best inventions. Here the inventor talks about what inspires her work.

When I was growing up, an inventor seemed like a very geeky and slightly mad person to me, not at all how I saw myself! Never would I have dreamed that would be part of my story. Now I carry this title with pride. To me it stands for imagination and daring to challenge the status quo by dreaming of another way.

When starting a new project, first I need to feed my brain but also (at the risk of sounding cheesy) my heart and soul. I get a huge amount of energy and inspiration from reading and researching other creative thinkers and looking through books. And then creating rough sketches and compilations of inspiration to start to flesh out a bit of a vision.

Portrait of Jane ni Dhulchaointigh

Of course, most ideas don’t work out. For many years while developing Sugru I wanted it to be usable by people of all ages, including kids. But it wasn’t possible to have the original formula pass the very strict toy regulations, and it took several more years before we finally cracked it. Last year we launched a new Family-safe and extra Skin-Friendly Sugru formulation. What did I learn? Sometimes you’ve got to compromise and get out there with a good enough version. You can keep working towards the dream in the background, it’s just a matter of time.

In terms of qualities an inventor should have, probably naivety is essential, as well as imagination, and most of all – optimism and enthusiasm. Experience and age can be inhibitors to all of the above, so I’m hoping I’ll continue to learn ways of managing my increased experience to stay young at heart as I continue to get older!

Most of the job is about working with other people, teamwork, and communication. Inventing is a very small part of the job, mostly it’s about helping people understand it, use it, and reach more people with it.

“Start small and make it good” was a piece of advice that served me well in the early days. And trust your instinct. Taking advice and help in the early days is vital, but sometimes it’s when you start listening to your gut and acting on it that things really start to come good.

Credits: All media
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