#534  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 8          August 2001

Cheapness, the Mother of Innovation
Richard Donkin

Mr. Donkin, a leading workplace columnist in London, UK, for the Financial Times. He is author of Blood Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work (Texere, New York, 2001). 

What do Johannes Gutenberg, Henry Ford, Abraham Darby, James Watt, Henry Bessemer and Thomas Edison have in common? Each one of them was a great innovator who transformed the world in which he worked. But were they inventors?

Some of them, most of them in fact, are perceived as inventors. Often, however, when we look at their inventions alone, there is a tendency to question their originality. Printing, for example, existed before Gutenberg. It had been developed by the Chinese several centuries earlier. Iron was produced before Darby developed his Coalbrookdale forge. Thomas Newcomen had a working steam engine before that of Watt, and Thomas Savery had one before Newcomen, built to the designs of the French engineer, Denis Papin. The Japanese had been making fine steel long before Bessemer. The electric light bulb, also, existed before Edison made one that worked efficiently and economically.

For sure, itís difficult to quibble with the originality of Edisonís tinfoil phonograph, but Edison had the prescience to understand that any invention cannot succeed commercially without support. He knew, from the lessons of the gas lighting industry, that his light bulb needed extensive investment in power generation and supply infrastructure. It needed strong marketing acumen to encourage investment from potential customers. The gas lighting industry was a powerful competitor that did its utmost to strangle the new invention at birth. Gas industry competitors tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the first public demonstration of the light bulb held at Edisonís Menlo Park laboratories over Christmas in 1879.

The greatest innovators, therefore, were great improvers. James Wattís condenser and other improvements liberated the steam engine from its earliest job as a water pump in the coal mining industry and his commercial partnership with Matthew Boulton made it accessible to the rest of the world.

If necessity is the mother of invention, originality is its father. A great invention will do something that could be not be achieved without it. But originality is rarely a feature of great innovation. Innovation requires both vision and the ability to improve on invention. So often, the key to this improvement is the desire to do something more economically. Cheapness lies at the heart of all transformational innovation, be it interchangeable metal type - developed by Gutenberg - or the silicon chip.

Look at Abraham Darby, the English Quaker ironmaker. What was he trying to achieve when he developed his pioneering method of iron production in 1709 that used coke instead of coal? Darby wanted to make cheap, affordable cooking pots. Cooking pots, hitherto, had been relatively expensive but essential domestic items. He reasoned that anyone who could make them cheaply could clean up in the marketplace. His casting experiments were carried out in the utmost secrecy because he was not alone in his beliefs.

Darbyís iron was so good that it enabled cheaper and better quality production of other ironware, significantly the cast iron boilers and pistons that were used in the earliest steam engines. In the same way, most of the innovations that characterized Britainís industrial revolution were aimed at making cheaper products through more economical production. Wrought iron, developed by Darbyís son, enabled cheaper construction of factory spaces, needed for the new textile machinery. All of this equipment was the product of inter-connected innovation generated, not so much by dedicated boffins, but by persistent entrepreneurs. For instance, Richard Arkwright was a trader in human hair clippings used for wigs. He was searching for the innovation that would make his fortune and he succeeded by designing a frame to spin cotton fiber into thread.

The greatest skill of many of these innovators was the ability to see the big picture. Many of them believed that their improvements would benefit society but they also knew that they would need finance, production capabilities, skilled collaborators and good lawyers to protect their patents. Edison knew his light bulbs could be made economically and, from the start, stressed their value. A light bulb, he told visitors to his Christmas exhibition, would cost 25 cents and the electricity to run it a few pennies a day. And standing in the background was the banker J. P Morgan, ready to organize the finance to make it happen.

Equally it wasnít the automobile that made Henry Ford a great innovator, it was the combined efforts of he and his engineers to devise a system - the moving assembly line - that allowed the company to make the Model T so economically that management was left wondering what to do with the profits in 1913 after the system was introduced. Fordís solution was to pay his workers $5 a day when the going rate for industrial workers was $11 a week. It was the $5 a day that brought Ford his front page newspaper headlines, not the Model T. The big boost in pay meant that competitors had to raise their pay rates too, thus creating a mass market for Fordís cheaply made cars.

Great innovators, therefore, tend to have a broader understanding of their world than those we may perceive purely as inventors. They have a more sophisticated sense of the inter-connectedness of innovation. They look at technology and set about making it better, often in collaboration with others. They have a vision of a better world, not always realized by their innovation, but not for the want of trying. Time and again their improvements are driven by the desire to economize or make something cheaply. Cheapness, not necessity, is the mother of innovation.

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