Innovation is our business

According its mission statement (1), innovation is TU Delft’s business in two ways. First, is what the people at the university do, the main body of their activity.

Secondly, it is also their responsibility to society to create value. As it is funded by society with the aim of bringing innovation into society, the university clearly is concerned about society. That is marvelous, but what is innovation?

When I took a seat for the first time on the college benches, I had no idea what I was about to become part of. Not about becoming an engineer with a ‘commitment to society’, nor that I was to become someone creating ‘innovation’. However, when I graduated in 1976 and left the university for my first job, innovation started to become the theme of my life. Did that mission statement have anything to do with it?

The aforementioned mission statement is part of a century old tradition. For ages, thinkers and tinkerers (aka philosophers) have observed the world we live in by studying the nature of matter. Asking themselves the question ‘What is fire?’ they studied the nature of heat, resulting in steam-technology and steam engines. Or they studied the nature of lightning and thus created electric engines. Asking the what-question they discovered the laws of nature and related theories, from Pascal’s and Boyle’s Laws to Newton’s Principia, and from Babbage’s Principle to Turing’s Proof. I learned them all, but who were Blaise Pascal, Richard Boyle, Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage or Richard Turing? Now, I know that they contributed to the Scientific Revolution that initiated technical change in our society.

Aside from those natural philosophers creating the scientific revolution, there were scholars studying the nature of society and the nature of man. Spinoza questioned religion in his ethics while Luther questioned the greedy Catholic Church. Locke and Hume advocated freedom and liberalism. Again, who were Baruch Spinoza, Martin Luther, John Locke and David Hume? Now I know that, with many others, they created the Enlightenment that initiated social change in society. They introduced the concept of liberty and parliamentary democracy – which I came to be representing personally. They wrote the precursors of human rights that shape our society. Now I understand why I have political freedom, can speak my mind and publish my thoughts. Now, some forty odd years after my graduation, I see that, as a consequence of all that work of the philosophers, technical change, social change, scientific change, economic change and political change became intertwined. Their work was about change. Just as it says in the mission statement.

Philosophers of later time
In time, other philosophers have emerged, and I realized that they, being the children of their time, also looked at the world they lived in. They noticed a changed world as a result of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They saw the effects of the Industrial Revolution. They noticed how all that change was driven by human action.

For the economist Adam Smith, as described in his ‘Wealth of Nations’ (1776), individual people created collective wealth; what he called the invisible hand of economy. Biographer Samuel Smiles wrote in his ‘Lives of Engineers’ (1861) about the Heroes of Invention: the inventor-entrepreneur was heralded. The economic historian Abbott Payson Usher published in 1929 his epic ‘A History of Mechanical Inventions’. It gave rise to his cumulative synthesis-theory of the inventive act. The economist and political scientist Joseph Alois Schumpeter published his groundbreaking ‘Business Cycles’ in 1939. For him the entrepreneur with his business act was the crucial ‘agent of change’.

They all, with their own perspective, recognized those individual contributions that, with their act of invention and their act of business, created the dynamics of society. In short, it was about science & engineering and its relation to individual knowledge. Just as it says in the mission statement.

My personal innovation
For me the route of change and novelty started when, in 1976, I graduated with a master’s in electric engineering. My thesis ‘Micro-computers, innovation in electronics’ (published as my first book under the same title) was a technology forecasting study about what would become micro-electronics creating the personal computer. After getting my MBA with my thesis ‘Innovation in Small and Medium sized Enterprises’, I knew that innovation was going to be my business. Soon, while working in a large electrical company, I published a book ‘The Management of Innovation’. My short political career in Dutch Parliament — quite an innovation for an engineer — was followed with a part-time professorship at TU Eindhoven (2), another innovative challenge, and gave birth to the third book ‘Innovation: from Discontent to Courage’, exploring innovation in the Dutch society. Then it was time to become involved. In 1986, I became an entrepreneur by starting my own company making application software for personal computers. Nowadays, as I am retired and have time on my hands, I have returned to the question that has been bothering me for such a long time: ‘What is innovation?’ This is a question worth a scholarly effort I now have been working on for years.

Inventions and inventors
I published the results in a series of case studies: called the Invention Series (3), in which I analysed important clusters of innovations. Starting with steam-engines, describing the efforts of Thomas Newcomen, James Watt and Richard Trevithick in the dynamic times they were living in. I noticed the swarming of subsequent innovations penetrating society: steam powering carriages, trains, boats, machines and steam powered factories. Next, I started investigating electrical inventions. As with steam, which replaced human and animal power, electricity was a new source of power. In ‘The Invention of the Electromotive Engine’ I analysed the invention and inventors of the electromotor and the electric dynamo in the context of the nineteenth century. These were times that saw the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions and experienced the 1848 European Revolutions. Next, in ‘The Invention of the Electric Light’ I analyzed the clusters of innovations around Pavel Jablochkoff’s invention of the arc light and Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. Inventions that resulted in complete new industries. Thus, by doing my analyses, I identified these general purpose engines as the micro-foundations of the General Purpose Technology (GPT) of electricity. The same micro-foundations that scholars, headed by Richard Lipsey, had been looking for. In addition, I related the GPT-E to the second Industrial Revolution (4).

Living in the age of information, we know that electricity is not only a carrier of power. It is also a carrier of information. Therefore, I analysed how electricity facilitated communication engines (figure). In ‘The invention of the Communication Engine Telegraph’ I studied the work of William Cooke, Charles Wheatstone and Samuel Morse. In a range of clusters of innovations, they laid the foundations for telegraph networks crossing oceans and spanning the globe. Their work created massive industries, corporate monopolies (in America) and state monopolies (in Britain), and they had to fight patent wars. Their work was in the aftermath of the French Revolution during the first Industrial Revolution. In addition, in the next case study ‘The invention of the Communication Engine Telephone’ I analysed Alexander Bell’s invention of the acoustic telegraph (also known as telephone). I described the emergence of the Bell Monopoly, the clusters of Bell-business, the telephone industry, Bell’s race to the patent office and the epic patent war he became involved in. It happened in a society that had seen the American Revolution and its struggle for freedom. At the moment, I am in the process of finishing ‘The Invention of the Wireless Communication’ in which Guglielmo Marconi played such an important role just before the Great War.

About the context for innovation
These studies led me to my most recent 600 page publication. In ‘The Context for Innovation; British (R)evolutions in Perspective’ I describe how evolutionary developments on the British Isles resulted in the first and second Industrial Revolution . It was the transfer of wealth, knowledge & knowhow and political power, which created the freedom of the body, the soul and the spirit. From the time of imitation and emulation, through the time of invention we reached the time of innovation we are living in today (figure). Modern times, in which we find our beloved institution alive and kicking, proudly declaring ‘Innovation is our Business’.

In conclusion, let me say that, in my opinion, to know where we are heading to in the future, we have to understand our history. For students of technology, the Invention Series offers insight I would have loved to read about when I started studying at TU Delft. It would have enhanced my motivation knowing my place in the greater scheme of society. Now as an alumnus of the university, enjoying its hospitality as a guest, I am offering my insights to todays 22,000 innovators of the future. They are our invisible hand of innovation.

Redacteur Redactie

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