In this video, Dr Eric Scharpf gives his ‘gee, that’s funny’ view on what lies behind the meaning of the term ‘innovation’. As an example of this, he recalls the circumstances that led to the discovery of Teflon – the non-stick polymer used in cookware. Eric believes that innovation nowadays comes about more when you have people from different areas talking and working together.
My own personal idea of innovation is coming up with new stuff that’s really cool. And your definition of cool could be everybody wants some, maybe it’s an innovation that might make some commercial success. But innovation is anything that’s new and useful or fun. Generally, innovation starts from a whole array of ideas.
Years ago, I used to keep an ideas notebook when I was working at a large company in one of their – we called it their invention group etcetera – so you’d work on a number of things, and every time a new idea popped into your head, you’d write it down. And then every now and then you’d look at those ideas to see if there was anything neat or cool in them.
There’s a great quote from Isaac Asimov: “The word that usually accompanies innovation or discovery is not ‘eureka’ but ‘gee, that’s funny’.” It’s something unexpected, it’s something new and it turns into innovation when you mess around with it and turn it into something that didn’t exist before.
Like the guy who invented Teflon. He got this big cylinder of gas that no one had ever gathered together before, and he opened it up and nothing came out – so the immortal ‘gee, that’s funny’. You’d think, OK, fine, I’ll do something else, but no, he took the cylinder and cut it in half to see what was going on. And in the bottom of that cylinder, there was this slimy powdery stuff that was really slippery. We have a different name for that stuff now – it’s called Teflon – and without that, ‘hey, that was funny’ and the follow-up from it, innovation never would have happened.
Dr Eric Scharpf
Portrait of Isaac Asimov, copyright Rowena Morrill. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.
Image of Roy Plunkett, courtesy of DuPont