Engineering vs Inventing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between Engineers and Inventors.

Engineers have to do the tough job of making things work. When I was a child the people who were in charge of the local shipyard still wore bowler hats. These were the Engineers: the men who had the final say in terms of what was possible (there were no female Engineers then).

There has always had to be a big element of conservative caution in how Engineers do their work. When my family boards an aircraft, I want that put together by the planet’s most reliable people. And yet, the guy who first came up with the idea of powered flight was not a conservative thinker. The idea is one thing, actually taking off is another.

The people I know who style themselves ‘Inventor’ tend to have some personal attributes which are different from those of the Engineers I deal with:

Engineering is a team sport in which numbers of people, each with some technical specialism or particular experience, need to work together to design and build complex systems. Engineers will find it hard to find suitable technical challenges without being part of a team. Engineers mostly work for big organisations (sadly it’s often as employees in pseudo-military hierarchies) and tend to get narrower and narrower experience, making innovation more and more difficult. Their main enemy is boredom. It’s mind numbing for most engineers to have to deal with the nitty-gritty of contract negotiation for example. They therefore tend to shy away from dealmaking and, as long as the work is interesting, they will go along for the ride. Inventors, by contrast don’t tend to play nicely with others and are often highly tuned to the possibility of making personal wealth. Maybe they spend too much time around lawyers.

Resistant to education (and to conformity in general)
Engineers have to spend a long time being academically tutored and trained. Only then can they apply judgement, design codes, standards and recognised methods to enable effective implementation. As in any profession, novel thinking is often discouraged (despite what might be said to the contrary). Some of the best Inventors can be technically naive and spend time on ideas which Engineers could prove, from first principles, were groundless. Inventors however, almost never talk themselves out of trying things which look promising. This certainly leads to some waste of effort, but also allows exploration of areas where their professional brethren would choose not to go…

Here are some illustrations of the value of such naivete:
If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said ‘you can’t do this’.
Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.

A man has been arrested in New York for attempting to extort funds from
ignorant and superstitious people by exhibiting a device which he says will convey the human voice any distance over metallic wires so that it will be heard by the listener at the other end. He calls this instrument a telephone. Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires.

News item in a New York newspaper, 1868.

Very interesting Whittle, my boy, but it will never work.
Cambridge Aeronautics Professor, when shown Frank Whittle’s plan for the jet engine.

What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.
Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s.

When I attended College, as an Engineering undergraduate, I expected to learn a significant amount about the process of inventing. That didn’t happen, but now I’m putting together a Master’s-level course in Invention. If you know of anyone who would like to invest in, or host, such a venture, please ask them to get in touch via


  1. I have to agree with you 100%. Given my present circumstances I probably wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the Master’s course you describe, but I can definitely see the merits. However I can’t help but feel that a formal education in “inventing” would stiffle innovation more than help.

    There are already so many roadblocks to aspiring genuine inventors, the last we need is a panel of “experts” to determine who is qualified to invent. I had an idea once for an omnidirectional treadmill that could have dozens of applications, especially in conjunction with “virtual reality” types of applications. I had the idea as a freshman in high school. I was (and still am) always looking at problems and trying to imagine the solution. I went to college to learn electrical engineering. Near the end of my degree I shared some of my ideas with my faculty advisor. He shot it down as “useless” and he make remarks suggesting that I didn’t understand what engineering is all about.

    Now, years later, you can go to and find a video of the type of thing I had contemplated in my mind, developed by somebody else. Of course economics and feasibility aren’t always the first things that enter the creative/inventive mind, especially a high school freshman, and the concept may still never really go far.

    As an engineer in the “real” world I came to realize that the “ideas” never came from the engineers anyway. They came from a guy with a marketing degree or an artist with a degree in industrial design. These guys would brainstorm ideas in their product management groups, then evaluate the business merits of the ideas. The industrial designers were always the most “inventive”, given that art is just about the most creative and boundless field of study. Once they eliminated all of the ideas that didn’t fit with their business objectives they would consider the few ideas that had some merit. Then predict how much they could cost, how much they could sell, what price they could charge, and other qualifications. The only role of the engineers was to take THEIR specifications and find a workable solution, with a focus torward some particular performance and some particular cost.

    Imagine if I came up with a great idea for a new type of step ladder, but I didn’t have a clue about what type of materials to make it out of. I ask an engineer to decide this for me. Now who’s the inventor? Sometimes it seems like the engineer is just a human calculator and glorified technician rolled into one. At best engineering is taking someone else’s 95% finished invention and figuring out why it won’t work they way it should, almost like a repair man. In my career I feel like I’m just solving the same problem over and over. The nuts and bolts in a dishwasher may be different from the nuts and bolts that go onto the space shuttle, but at some point a bolt is still a bolt and it is very hard to be inspired by that one piece of the system.

    • Dear Marc,
      I sympathise and certainly wouldn’t suggest that any course for Inventors be run by academics. I’d have product designers and marketers and artists maybe even a creative professor or two -certainly some end users. Engineering has been so derisked as to become sterile -in the same way that you don’t want your lawyer or doctor to try some great new idea (they just had) in court or on the operating table.

  2. What we need is equal to “teachers” and “students” i agree with the person who said we need a panel of experts, but we don’t need those experts to determine who is and who isn’t qualifiable to be an inventor.. I feel all can be inventors is they feel.. What we need is a panel of experts generally from engineering bacgrounds to act as “teachers”, to essentially grade the inventions and pass or fail them while providing technical data to help an inventor with their home work. We need “students” to amaze the inventors with grandiose ideas, putting the teachers to the test to determine it’s plausibility of creation. We need Engineers to be the glorified calculators and we need the inventors to be the pretentious artists.. Together we all work well.. we just need to get together and talk .. We need a national prototype production place, funded by the people, for the people..

    • Thanks for that. If it were left to engineers and inventors, I’m sure we would come up with a workable solution to benefit everyone. Sadly, when the lawyers get involved, that is no longer the objective.

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