Inventions versus Discoveries

23/03/2011

Both inventions and discoveries have a ‘wow’ factor, so we often confuse the two.

Both also give society new capabilities – so for the greatest good of the greatest number, they should be shared with all. Against this, however, the discoverer or inventor usually feels a strong emotional sense of ownership, and seeks fame and/or money based on this.

So what’s the distinction between an invention and a discovery?

An invention is a new combination of known techniques or technologies, to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Invention is a process of synthesis.

A discovery is a previously unknown product of the workings of nature. This comes from an analysis of the observed world.

Engineers make inventions, scientists make discoveries.

Fame or Fortune?

A discovery doesn’t lead directly to fortune, and it’s completely counter-productive to do anything to keep it secret. Publish as widely as possible under your name, with as many peer reviews as you can muster, and if it’s truly an amazing discovery, you will get fame. This may lead to fortune (via lecture tours, etc), but this is not assured.  A discoverer has nothing to fear from peer review (an inventor does).

An invention can lead to fortune – if you are very lucky – but sadly, the evidence is against it. The inventor typically has to put huge resources into educating the market in what his invention does, and why it is better than previous solutions.  The person who really cleans up on an invention is typically the first copycat, who produces a ‘me-too with a twist’, once the inventor has done all the hard work to establish the market.

If someone claiming a discovery wants to keep it secret, it’s probably an invention (or nothing at all!)


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