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 firstname.lastname@example.org