Inventors, Invention, and Innovation (January 2024)

This essay first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Choice (volume 61 | issue 5).

Introduction:

In looking at the literature on invention, inventors, and innovation, this essay focuses primarily on books published in the last decade, most of them available digital as well as print. That many books on this subject are published for a general audience is not surprising, given the continued popularity of, and controversies surrounding, notable individuals, for example historical figures like Nikola Tesla and contemporary innovators such as Elon Musk.1

There has been much debate about historical inventions and inventors—in particular about who first invented something. The telephone is a good example: Which invention came first, Bell’s or Tesla’s? Contemporary popular conjecture leans toward competitiveness: instead of the first the debate centers on the best—for example, whose electric vehicle is the most efficient? whose spaceship has flown the highest? and so on.

Most books and internet resources discussed in this essay focus on inventors and innovators in the United States, and historically a preponderance of these figures have come from dominant populations, specifically white males. Given the industrial trends and geopolitics from the late 20th century onward, innovation in countries outside the US favors competitive intelligence and research. Perhaps surprisingly, research and development in China is often positioned under the umbrella of rescaling or even government centralization of innovation.

A preponderance of literature on invention is about technological rather than artistic manifestations. That said, in recent years academic interest in innovations in the arts, including popular music, has come to the fore, as reflected by the increasing number of titles on this literature.

But what qualifies an individual to be identified as an inventor? The answer to that question is more quantifiable than who qualifies as an innovator, the latter a very broad concept. Typically, and increasingly in global communities, inventions are the products of collaborative efforts, but corporate and entrepreneurial executives may be the sole recipients of credit for a new product and/or service that was in reality designed by multiple individuals.

A discussion of the literature on invention and innovation would not be complete without addressing work on artificial intelligence (AI), which at this writing is much in the news. This essay considers work at the intersection of AI and a variety of other subjects, including art, creative writing, human-machine collaboration, corporate competition, and military and cyber warfare. The literature on AI and organizational innovation (including advice for entrepreneurs) is proliferating and certainly finds a place in this essay. A common concept in resources about AI is scale, for example, rescaling processes and production, and the possibility of using AI applications in the process.

It is worth noting that as an area of study invention and innovation is extremely dynamic, and those interested in inventors, invention, and innovation need to keep the changing face of this literature in mind. The reader of this essay should be aware that the print literature on the subject may quickly become outdated. That being the case, this essay references relevant transient material in digital form, be it in journals or web sites.

1. As is evident from the works cited, many of titles included in this essay have been reviewed in Choice Reviews. Of these, all were determined by their reviewer to be recommended, highly recommended, or essential, and suitable for undergraduates and/or students in two-year technical programs.


About the Author:

Kyle D. Winward is technical services librarian at Central College in Pella, Iowa. He earned his master of arts in information science & learning technologies from the University of Missouri.