Throughout history, we have assumed that ground-breaking inventions emerge from the minds of individual geniuses and exceptional scientific visionaries who toil in solitude. Society clings to images of the solitary chemist spending long hours alone in the lab developing a new compound, or in today’s world, the coder typing until dawn to refine a cutting-edge program or algorithm.
What often goes unremarked or, at least, uncelebrated, is the extent to which partnerships are essential in that transformation.
One could argue that, in addition to the “Eureka!” moment of discovery, there is a secondary “Eureka!” moment: the point at which the technical innovator, working alongside a market visionary, determines how to use a discovery in a new, productive way.
Such partnerships often start by pure chance. As Nikola Tesla dug ditches in New York City in 1886, he happened to tell his foreman about his electrical inventions. The foreman then introduced Tesla to Alfred Brown and Charles Peck, who had made a fortune in the telegraphy industry and were looking for a great invention to promote. Tesla’s AC motor proved to be that next big thing.
Beyond providing material support for Tesla’s AC motor, Peck and Brown saw how to profit from that invention, selling the patent rights to an electrical manufacturer and collecting royalties. And so, while Tesla completely trusted Peck to negotiate a deal with George Westinghouse, Peck knew he could count on Tesla to come up with dazzling demonstrations.
Together, they spurred Westinghouse engineers to buy into the vision of AC on the spot—and sparked a revolutionary advance in electric power. These kinds of partnerships flourish when both sides not only trust and respect each other, but when they can bring complementary assets and capabilities to the table.
No one person possesses the full skill-set needed to move an idea out of the laboratory to the marketplace. In the laboratory or workshop, the technical innovator needs to be able to concentrate on the details of the material world, to tease out a new insight or phenomenon. In a mode of pure discovery, the technical innovator does not necessarily learn who, why or how the new discovery will be used.
That’s what the non-technical visionary, the entrepreneur, brings to the party. If the strength of the technical innovator is negotiating with the material world, then the talent of the entrepreneur is negotiating with the social world to identify the products that people need at any given time.
Consider in the late 1890s, Buick devised an improved design for gas-powered engines, which he installed in experimental cars. While he knew all about engines, Buick had no idea how to manufacture cars in quantity, and more importantly, no idea of who would buy a reasonably-priced, powerful and durable vehicle.
William Durant, meanwhile, borrowed one of the first Buicks in the summer of 1904, driving it all over the unpaved backroads of central Michigan. In the process, he solicited input from citizens on what they wanted and needed in terms of transportation—and brought those ideas back to the Buick factory in Flint. Together, they designed reliable automobiles that reflected drivers’ needs and desires, and in four years, were producing as many cars as Henry Ford.
The Tesla and Buick stories, and countless others over the past century, reveal that partnerships are essential to technological innovation. Without them, many ideas would remain in the domain of research and development, never to change society. As scientists and engineers accelerate the pace of technological progress, we will need more visionaries and entrepreneurial thinkers who are able to remove obstacles to execution, negotiate with customers, and align emerging technologies to the needs and aspirations of the market.
Such partnerships are far too important to assume that they will arise by happy accident. As students prepare for STEM careers, we must teach that building relationships is just as important as building prototypes, assuring they have the skills needed to create dynamic, multidisciplinary collaborations.
We will also need innovators and entrepreneurs to carefully determine the political and social impacts of new technology. Because of the complex nature of modern systems, it’s hard to predict all of the ways that people will use those systems—and their unintended consequences. In other terms, it will not be enough to simply build, say, a new social media platform and assume that expanding access to information will automatically lead to social improvement. As the technologist devises these advances in computing and big data, the entrepreneur has a role to play in determining how it can serve society (and for the better).
If new technologies are to make the impact that Tesla and Buick made to electricity and the auto industry respectively, we must ensure that technologies are developed with respect to what society may want or wish for—even if it is not clear, at first, how that innovation can be practically applied.
In 1783, as America’s minister to the court of France, Ben Franklin witnessed the first flight of Mongolfier Brothers’ balloon. When someone questioned the potential value of this new invention, Franklin promptly retorted “What good is a newborn baby?”
Discoveries and inventions may start out as newborns, but if they are to transform society, then creative partnerships are needed to ensure they mature in ways that help address today’s most pressing challenges.
Bernie Carlson is the chair of the Engineering and Society Department in the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science and a nationally renowned historian of technology who studies the careers of inventors and entrepreneurs in an effort to educate future engineers.