Webster simply states that “innovation” is the introduction of something new, a new idea, method or device. With the advent of the Internet years ago, the world is at our fingertips. Traveling is fast and convenient because of cars, planes and high-speed trains. But what is often forgotten is that behind our everyday conveniences is a brilliant thinker who brought dedication, passion and sometime obsession to his or her work.
In the 1950s, inspired by the blinking motion of the human eye, college engineering professor Robert Kearns created the intermittent windshield wiper. What was once Kearns’ “ah-ha” moment became his obsession – one that catapulted him into a life of legal battles fighting automakers he claimed stole his idea, into a divorce, separation from his children, and into the courtroom where he eventually won millions in settlements. In 2008, LA Times writer Reed Johnson wrote that Greg Kinnear’s performance as Robert Kearns in the film “Flash of Genius” reminded him of the days he had once spent interviewing Kearns and his ex-wife, Phyllis. In his review, Johnson writes: Kearns “was a prickly bundle of brilliance, wounded ego, profound (some would say fanatical) spiritual faith and implacable energy, Kearns in many ways related better to machines than to human beings. Phyllis Kearns told me when I interviewed her that she used to tell her husband that, ‘if somebody cut him open he wouldn’t bleed, it would be electronics in there.’”
It might be a stretch to imagine Kearns’ intermittent windshield wipers on a shortlist of the 10 greatest innovations of the past two millennia, but the film “Flash of Genius” is a peak into the mind and life of an innovator. Reed’s colorful description of Kearns’ persona and the relation of man to machine makes me wonder if most innovators of the past and present would, too, be electronically configured.
In the Wall Street Journal, Paul Glader writes about management guru Gary Hamel who says that “the most important invention in the last 100 years was management itself” – management that has allowed companies such as Procter & Gamble, General Electric and Toyota to move forward in brands, electricity and industrial growth, and with lean manufacturing, respectively. But going beyond the past 100 years and thinking about the past 2,000, how do you name the greatest innovations of the past two millennia? It’s a subjective task, for sure, but wouldn’t the list have some sort of universality? Imagine life without clean water, modern medicine, government and writing. It’s hard to imagine the world without innovative minds.
So whether we’re talking about Kearns’ intermittent windshield wipers, the world is full of innovations that have shaped the present and how we think about the future. Global trend and strategic change expert Dr. Terry van der Werff shared his top five choices for “the most significant inventions of the last two millenia” in 2000: the Indo-Arabic number system; waterworks; the printing press; the telescope and microscope; and Otto von Guericke’s static electricity globe. Then there are cars, planes and spaceships. Velcro, zippers and snaps. Management, government and democracy. Military weapons and modern medicine. What’s next?
If in the past we’ve gone from the printing press to the Internet, and from horse and buggy to spaceships, it’s exciting and a bit unnerving to think what our would will be like in 2110.
Kathie Thomas is the Director of Innovation and a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard. The global Innovation practice group Kathie leads offers proven tools and approaches for helping organizations and teams inject a new level of innovation and productivity into their strategic planning and program development.