Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread!

Posted by: Ian Angell

As a professor in a department that researches innovation, I am increasingly being asked about this hot topic. Rather than giving a bald ‘definition,’ let me talk around innovation, and that may hopefully clarify things.

Let’s get one misconception out of the way immediately: that creativity comes with the lone genius having a flash of inspiration, … the light-bulb moment! It’s a lot more complicated. Innovation isn’t a single event, rather it’s a continuous process. I’m with Thomas Edison: “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

The creative process was mapped out in three stages by the nineteenth century German scientist, Herman Helmholtz as: Saturation, Incubation, and Illumination. French mathematician Poincaré added the extra notion of Verification.
Saturation: fill the mind with the problem – until the point where extra data won’t take you any further forward.
Incubation: Keep thinking - mental activity must continue, even subconsciously.
Illumination: The ‘light bulb’ comes on. This is not some single moment, but the result of a long drawn out process.
Verification: even then the idea must be checked empirically.

Numerous other authors have extended this list over the years:
First Insight ➔ Preparation ➔ Saturation ➔ Incubation ➔ Illumination ➔ Verification ➔ Evaluation ➔ Elaboration.
Here the original list of four has been topped and tailed with:
First Insight: a vague recognition
Preparation: collecting the necessary resources
Evaluation: is the result of any use/value?
Elaboration: taking it further; adjustment, expanding its utility.

Two further entries hover over the whole process:
Determination: keep going despite frustrations and set-backs.
Context & Timing: being in the right place at the right time, so that you can convince others to use your invention and that they begin to see it as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

And what is so great about sliced bread? The great invention shouldn’t be called sliced bread at all, but ‘pre-sliced’ bread. Whatever we choose to call it, its invention exhibits all the above features of innovation.

Otto Frederick Rohwedder, from Iowa, first filed a patent for a loaf-slicing machine in 1912 – he even sold his jewellery business to fund development. Kidney disease didn’t stop him, nor did his workshop burning down, destroying his tools and prototypes. Even so, the world’s first mechanically sliced bread didn’t go on sale until July 7, 1928 with the Kleen-Maid loaf. {For a much fuller description I recommend you read Frank Passic's essay Bread Slicer Inventor lived in Albion at}Rohwedder had met with resistance from bakers, who thought that sliced bread would quickly go stale. That argument faded when in 1928, the Continental Bakery of New York introduced Wonder Bread, an unsliced loaf with a waxed paper wrapper to conserve freshness.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The clincher turned out to be a particular electric toaster invented by Charles P. Strite, although his toaster wasn’t the first. That accolade seems to belong to a British firm: Crompton & Co in 1893. In the intervening years many more types were produced, among the most notable being the D-12 introduced by General Electric in 1909. {Toasters have an absolutely fascinating history, and I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone interested in innovation should visit, where they will get a dynamic and particular sense of how innovation progresses.}

During World War I, Strite worked in a factory where each day he saw toast being burnt in the cafeteria. The problem was people took their eye off the bread as it toasted. His solution was a toaster that did not require human attention: the Toastmaster! This was a spring-loaded, automatic, pop-up toaster with a variable timer. Sold to restaurants from 1919, it hit the retail shops in 1926.

Using Rohwedder's machine, pre-sliced Wonder Bread was in mass-production by 1930. Sliced bread in waxed paper wed to the Toastmaster was a marriage made in capitalist heaven. Its market penetration following the Wonder Bread advertising campaign is legendary. By 1933, 80% of all the bread sold in the United States was pre-sliced and wax wrapped.

Here we have a clear example of how no product of the creative mind comes into existence in a flash, or in a vacuum – it co-evolves with other artefacts. Every invention and creation stands on the shoulders of past giants; but it also needs the popular acceptance of other prior inventions, which together spark interest in the marketplace. However, if access to those inventions is restricted, then there will be no experimentation, no variation, no creativity.

Most innovations are applications/variations that spring from prior innovations, exactly as Herbert Kroemer, the 2000 Nobel Physics Laureate, explains in his Lemma of New Technology: “The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been – and will continue to be – applications created by that technology.”

The same can be said of innovation in general. Innovations do not come from orthodox creators, but from users on the margins, who are free to experiment with radical ideas. What Kroemer is implying is that although a technological innovation occurs in a particular context, numerous people must run with that innovation to create a whole raft of derivative applications, which could not even be imagined by the original inventor. If that inventor restricts what can be done with his work, in effect banning derivative works, then he is limiting its potential, and cutting off all future revenue streams.

There is no knowing in advance what the really useful applications will be. There needs to be wide-scale experimentation – the more the merrier. Natural selection will bring the successful to the fore. According to Saul Godin, unless the idea of the innovation’s utility has captured the imagination of the market, unless the idea has spread, then there is no selection – natural or otherwise – and so nothing happens. Over-charging for, or overprotection of intellectual property will ensure that the innovation stays in the wilderness.

Suppose that Crompton & Co. had been allowed to copyright the concept of an electric toaster in 1893 – then derivatives would have been blocked; Strite would not have created the pop-up toaster; and Rohwedder’s sliced bread would not have achieved the status of being “the greatest thing!”

Photo permissions, with thanks:
Otto Rohwedder: Frank Passic;
Charles Strite and Toastmaster: Eric Norcross;

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