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Invention (from the Latin invenire, to find or to discover) in a broad sense refers to any novel idea or the process of its creation. In the technological sense it means the identification of a science or technology potential matching a specific human need or the result of this process: a novel technical product.

Because any invention implies a use, it is intrinsically value-laden and thus of ethical interest. This applies to the intended purpose as well as to the unintended side effects of production or use, the possibilities of misuse, and of so-called dual use (when the function of a product may be employed for either good or bad use). The social promotion or regulation of the inventive process also has ethical dimensions.

Basic Distinctions

Originally there was no distinction between invention and discovery. Invention could refer to theoretical cognition as well as to technical designing. However, beginning with the twentieth century, these concepts usually are distinguished. To discover is to recognize an existing but previously unknown phenomenon. To invent is to conceive of a novel and previously not existing phenomenon.

Invention is the starting point for a new technical development. An innovative cognition in science or technology may precede invention but not necessarily. What is decisive is the notion that some natural or technical effect might function as an artifact that could replace or enhance some human activity or operation. Any invention creates a new means for some human end.

According to the German engineer and writer Max Eyth (1905), there are four types of invention. One is a new means for a new end; an example would be television. Second is a new means for a preexisting end; an example is the transistor as replacement for the electronic vacuum tube. Third is an existing means put to a new end; an example is the telephone to transmit written materials, as in the documents in a telefax. Finally fourth is an existing means for an existing end; an example is when music CDs are used to store data. Completely new inventions are rare; frequently, an invention is a mere combination of elements already in existence. The distinction between these different types of invention naturally raises questions about whether some types might present more serious ethical challenges than others, and whether ethics might be differentially related to different types of invention.

Inventors may apply for patents, which will protect the idea against illegal imitation. Usually, however, the invention by itself is not immediately ready for everyday use. Lengthy designing, testing, and improving are required before a properly functioning form is achieved. This part of development is called the innovation process, and results, if technically and economically successful, in an innovation (in the narrow sense). The period between invention and innovation may take years or even decades. The question concerning whether in modern technology this period tends to progressively shorten, is highly debated.

Where Inventions Come From

At one time, the ability to invent was ascribed to the ingenious talent of gifted engineers who were regarded more as artists than as skilled experts. The art of inventing was explained by so-called creativity, an ability limited to only a few exceptional persons. Traditional histories of technology glorified the uniqueness of the inventor by drawing up long lists, in which important inventions were assigned to specific dates and famous names. The phenomenon of multiple inventions, however, disturbed this individualistic view. When both a technological potential and human need are in existence, the idea of bringing them together in an invention readily occurs to several persons at the same time. Although the aura of the individual ingenious creator may be shaken by this phenomenon, the process of inventing itself acquires a more solid explication.

According to John Guilford (1950), cognitive psychology explains creativity as a specific mixture of individual mental activities, partly conscious and partly subconscious. In the conscious stage, a person collects all knowledge available regarding certain problems and possible solutions (preparation). This knowledge sinks down to the subconscious, where it is stored, processed, and accidentally combined with additional tacit knowledge, without any explicit awareness on the person's part (incubation). Suddenly a new combination of knowledge and imagination emerges from the subconscious, and is identified as the perfect solution to a problem (illumination). In a final stage this new idea has to be tested and elaborated explicitly by rational thinking (verification).

In design theory, a modern branch of engineering research, the art of inventing is methodologically reconstructed. Instead of accumulating technical knowledge in an accidental and unsystematic way, design theory suggests systematic patterns arranging all the elements of possible solutions according to basic functional and structural features. This procedure, design theory claims, results in the totality of possible solutions to a given problem, and the only remaining difficulty is to choose the optimal solution among hundreds or even thousands of feasible combinations. Thus the associating and combining process, originally hidden in the subconscious, is objectified and rationalized, and is even accessible to computer programming.

Whether this rational strategy of inventing is actually feasible is debatable. Some observers hold that on principle the role of intuition and tacit knowledge in inventing is indispensable. For others the rationalistic approach seems promising for social interaction in teamwork, because individual intuitions from the subconscious are hard to communicate. Also invention cannot be reduced to personal performance alone, but obviously has social implications. Often it depends on the sociocultural context, which technical potentials an individual inventor takes into account, and which human needs and purposes are being realized. Furthermore the inventing activity depends on an innovative social climate and on economic incentives to motivate persons and corporations. Some hold that in the early twenty-first century the majority of inventions are made by large corporations, but there remain many individuals who also perfect basic inventions.

Ethical Issues

Recognizing that numerous inventions are ambiguous or even harmful to environment and society, several critics have considered whether an effective assessment and approval of the innovation process might be instituted. Some of them refer to historic examples, when certain inventions, in ancient Greece or medieval eastern Asia, had been suppressed systematically on ethical grounds, either by the very inventor or by political forces. The German economist Werner Sombart (1934) made the radical suggestion that every invention ought to be submitted to a National Council of Culture, which would release only such inventions as prove beneficial without question. Less radical approaches to improve the ecological and social quality of inventions are discussed at present in engineering ethics, which focuses on the professional responsibility of individual inventors, and in technology assessment, which concentrates on industrial strategies and political regulations.

Individual refusal—like that of the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, who in 1947 rebelled against doing any further work for the military—usually is not very effective, because nearly always there will be found others to continue a questionable project. Therefore, moral sensitivity of the individuals has to be supported by corporate and political institutions such as those of technology assessment, which proves to be the social organization of teleological ethics.

Some commentators question the ever growing rate of inventions and innovations, mostly driven by economic forces, which possibly threaten natural environment, the stability of cultural traditions, and personal self-fulfillment. Such views are, of course, at odds with the dominant innovation tendencies in modern industrial and information society.


SEE ALSO Political Economy of Science and Technology; Technological Innovation.


Eyth, Max. (1905). "Zur Philosophie des Erfindens." In Lebendige Kraefte. Berlin: Springer, 249–284.

Gilfillan, S. Colum. (1935). The Sociology of Invention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Analyzes social conditions and consequences of inventions.

Guilford, John P. (1950). "Creativity." American Psychologist 5: 444–454.

Hubka, Vladimir, and W. Ernst Eder. (1988). Theory of Technical Systems: A Total Concept Theory for Engineering Design. Berlin: Springer.

Porter, Alan L.; Frederick A. Rossini; Stanley R. Carpenter, et al. (1980). A Guidebook for Technology Assessment and Impact Analysis. New York and Oxford: North Holland.

Ropohl, Guenter. (1999). Allgemeine Technologie. Munich and Vienna: Hanser. Provides a comprehensive understanding of technology and analyzes thoroughly the process of technological development.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1939). Business Cycles. New York and London: McGraw Hill. Introduces the fundamental notions of invention and innovation from an economic point of view.

Sombart, Werner. (1934). Deutscher Sozialismus. Berlin: Buchholz & Weisswange. A peculiar attempt to suggest leftist ideas to German "national socialism", but important because of the perspicacious criticism of technological development.

Wiener, Norbert. (1993). Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A book found in manuscript and published forty years after it was written, which provides a broad analysis of invention in relation to most of the themes touched on in this article.

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in·ven·tion / inˈvenshən/ • n. the action of inventing something, typically a process or device: the invention of printing in the 15th century. ∎  something, typically a process or device, that has been invented: medieval inventions included spectacles for reading and the spinning wheel. ∎  creative ability: his powers of invention were rather limited. ∎  something fabricated or made up: you know my story is an invention. ∎  used as a title for a short piece of music: Bach's two-part Inventions.

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Invention. Name given by J. S. Bach to 15 of his shorter kbd. comps. in 2 parts or ‘voices’, incl. in his Klavierbüchlein, 1720. They are highly contrapuntal, being largely in the nature of imitation. Each works out some short melodic motif. Bach also left another 15 comps. in the same style, now known as his ‘3-part Inventions’, to which he gave the title ‘Symphonies’. The term was used before Bach's day for short vocal or instrumental pieces by Dowland, Janequin, and Negri, among others. It has occasionally been revived in the 20th cent., e.g. by Blacher and Berg.

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