Patents are the DNA of inventions, spawning entire new industries, businesses and economies. The giving away of patents by Toyota to spur development in hydrogen fuel, and by Tesla to help kickstart electric vehicle technology, are recent examples. A study by the Brookings Institution finds that the most productive periods in the United States occurred during the early 20th century and the Great Depression. The rate of patenting is nearly as high today as at any time in U.S. history. The most patents (per capita) came in 1916, 1915, 1885, 1932, 2010, 2011, 1931, 1883, 1890 and 1917. Here’s a look at some inventions from those years.
1883: Thomas Edison's Voltage Regulator
Superstar-inventor Thomas Edison has claimed more than 1,000 patents, including the phonograph, light bulb and this electronic device that was key to the development of radio, television and computer transistors.
Wikimedia Commons/Imperial War College
1885: Machine Gun
American-born British citizen Hiram Maxim invents a self-powered portable and fully-automatic machine gun that changes warfare. Its effects on society and the constitutional right to own it are still being debated today.
Thomas Kokta/Getty Images
1890: Stop Sign
William Phelps Eno proposed the first set of traffic rules and signs in an article in Rider and Driver, although the first actual sign didn’t appear until 1915.
1915: Stainless Steel Sink
The discovery of a new “rustless” steel by British metallurgist Harry Brearley is announced in the New York Times. Brearley applied for a patent that year, but American Elwood Haynes beat him to it. Its shiny surface, strength and corrosive resistant properties revolutionized modern industry from skyscrapers to kitchen utensils, trains and planes to medicine.
Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Corbis
1916: Condenser Microphone
Edward C. Wente of New Jersey’s Bell Labs invents the electronic condenser microphone, which can be found today in recording, television, film and radio studios.
Jonathan Fife/Getty Images
1917: Modern Zipper
Gideon Sundback figures out that 10 fasteners per inch works much better than four and invents the modern zipper, or “separable fastener.” Used to close boots and tobacco pouches, the zipper doesn’t get into clothing for another 20 years.
1931: Stop-action Photography
Harold “Doc” Edgerton began playing around with strobe lighting while a grad student at MIT, developing both stop-action and ultra-high speed photography. His images of exploding bullets, running athletes and milk droplets became iconic photos. He went on to invent underwater time-lapse photography, atomic bomb timing and lights for copiers and flash photography.
Edwin Land invents the polarizer, which filters light waves and reduces glare. He goes on to invent instant photography, while the polarizer leads to sunglasses, camera filters and LCDs.
Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Apple debuted its iPad tablet in April 2010. Its history goes back to 1983, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wanted to build a computer that users could carry around like a book, plug into telephone communications and link to libraries and other databases. It has been successful, kind of.
When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer issued a memo earlier this week ordering everyone to stop working from home and come back to the office, the inevitable complaints followed (it didn’t help that she built a nursery in her office to be close to her own baby). Mayer’s intention, however, wasn’t necessarily punitive. Some analysts see it as a Hail Mary pass to restore the level of innovation at the floundering company, and she’s doing it the best way she knows how: a la Google (her former employer).
Companies like Google and Facebook have heralded a new era in workplaces, engineering every detail down to the length of the cafeteria line to maximize opportunities for creative collaboration, and, ultimately, innovation. But, does it work?
Look at the numbers, suggests John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University. Google is No. 3 in market capitalization. Yahoo is No. 238.
“At Apple, employees generate $2.2 million per year,” Sullivan said. ”At Yahoo it’s $350,000. The data says it will increase innovation. It’s not an opinion.”
So why can’t you innovate from the laptop in your kitchen just as well as in the office? First, it’s important to distinguish between creativity and innovation.
“You can come up with a great idea on marijuana or walking along the beach at night,” Sullivan said. That’s creativity: a novel ideal. When it’s put into place it becomes an innovation, said Mike Fox, co-author of a book called Exploring the Nature of Creativity and faculty member at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State.
“An innovation is an outcome after creativity,” Fox said. “And innovation in the marketplace is associated with cash.”
Not to say that creativity is easy to define, either.
Yahoo CEO Marissa MayerMartin Klimek/Corbis
“What works for whom under what circumstances?” Fox said. “The answer to that is the holy grail. I’m 67 and I suspect I won’t live long enough to find the answer.”
The perfect creativity-fostering environment changes from day to day, based on a person’s specific needs, Fox said.
“If the person is an introvert and finds that their own productive environment is at home and away from people, they will excel based on that,” Fox said. “However, if you were going to make a simple statement, we find that folks perform better in terms of creative outcomes when working in small groups.”
But say a telecommuter does have great ideas at home, Sullivan postures.
“If I send in an idea via text or e-mail, how do I know someone’s going to read it?” he said. “If I sent 50 e-mails a day, people would be pissed. But if I’m walking up and down the hallways asking, ‘Watcha doing?’” people are pleased, and the conversation might lead somewhere.
At Google headquarters, experts believe those conversations happen more frequently because the environment is incredibly conducive to such interactions. Take the cafeteria. The length of the line is measured so that people will have to wait for a certain number of minutes designed to foster conversation. After you get your tray, it’s likely you might literally bump into someone while finding a seat.
“That’s the Google bump,” Sullivan said. “It’s engineered. They have long tables set up close to each other so that when you walk between them with your tray you bump people. That way, you won’t sit with the engineers you came in with, you’ll sit down and talk with whoever you bumped into.”
And those types of interactions increase collaboration, new solutions, competition, energy, and learning, Sullivan said.
Facebook paid its employees $7,000 extra to live within one mile of the office (until the city got angry when it drove up rent), Sullivan said.
“So when you’re 21, you bike or skateboard to work, where there’s free food. You come early, stay late, you come in on weekends for no reason ... these people are geniuses,” Sullivan said. “It’s all data driven.”
So far, the data on Yahoo might tell the story: the stock is higher now than before the announcement.
“They might feel like they’re losing freedom, but they’re gaining job security,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise, in five years will be gone ... I’m betting it’s the smartest move ever.”