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No. 3300:

Today, is it invention or innovation?  The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 


     First, Invention: Who invented the airplane?  We credit the Wright Brothers.  But what about Brazil’s Santos Dumont?  Well, the Wright brothers really did make the first successful flight.  But, with so many limitations!  They catapulted it from rails.  Then it flew in a straight line for under a minute. 

     Four years later, Santos Dumont made several clumsy attempts to build an airplane.  Then he succeeded with his Demoiselle series.  They took off from the ground.  They had directional control.  They flew a lot longer.  They were far more advanced.

     Let’s look at the two machines: The first Wright Flyer was a big biplane with a water-cooled engine.  No landing-gear.  The Demoiselle was a small monoplane with an air-cooled engine and wheels.  The two had so little in common.  That’s because both were inventions – brand new creations. Neither was merely innovation. Innovation means making better versions of something that exists. 

     But innovation had to follow: The Wright Brothers went to work.  They began innovating upon their invention.  Now they built an airplane they could sell to the US Army.  And Santos Dumont?  He fell ill and quit inventing. 

Innovation is now the more popular word.  It’s less dangerous.  But we have to improve upon the things we invent.

Think about civilian airliners: The DC-3, built in 1935, set the mold for modern passenger planes.  It bristled with new inventions.  But airliner forms have evolved in small steps ever since.  They still keep much of the DC-3’s form today.  No more Wright Brothers or Santos Dumont inventions.  Mainstream airliners still advance mostly by innovation – to this very day.

But our move into space!  That’s another story: So much radical invention!  We still look for stable forms upon which we can safely innovate. Orbiting stations, space telescopes, land-to-space vehicles!  We’re still inventing so many new forms.  Of course, innovation has to follow each of these forms.  But, as I write today, we still have to invent new space hardware.

My work as an experimentalist often meant inventing new apparatus.  So I can tell you: Inventing is such fun.  But here again, innovation must follow.  Any new apparatus reveals ways in which we have to improve it. 

Look at any new invention – Benz’ first automobile, for example: Just a seat with three wheels and a steering stick!  But then invention slowly gave way to innovation with smaller and smaller changes. Today our cars have a few basic forms. And these forms change less, from year to year.

So let us sing the praises of both invention and innovation.  We cannot survive without both.  Which is better?  It really comes down to where in the drama of creating new things, we choose take our place. 

I’m John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work. 


(Theme Music)


Online sources say much about Innovation vis-a-vis Invention.  Simply search the Internet using the words “Invention" and "Innovation”.  Those sources and my comments largely agree. 

See the Wikipedia articles about the Wright Brothers and Santos Dumont for their complex histories. 

My claim that the DC-3 was an invention must be hedged since it was the culmination of a brief series of development through the DC-1 and DC-2.  However, that culmination was a radical departure from all passenger planes that preceded it.  See the Wikipedia article.  From then on, passenger airplanes have evolved far more incrementally.

Here is report with a typical description of the kind of invention-of-research-equipment that I used to do. 

See Episode 2402 for more on Benz’ car.

All photos in the posted episode are mine except for the Benz car.  It was courtesy of Wikimedia. 

For a large set of photos of the various inventions and innovations that I’ve cited, click here.  All of these are my own, except for the Benz car and the last five images.  Those five are all courtesy of NASA.

This episode was first aired on July 8, 2024