Inventors and innovation

Inventors and innovation

Elmer Sperry (1860-1930) is remembered as the father of cybernetic (feedback control) engineering. He was the author of more than 350 patents in a wide range of fields, and he developed gyro-controlled steering and fire control systems used on Allied warships during World War I and World War II. He was among the first of the independent inventors of the early 20th century to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1).

Elmer Sperry said (2):

Think as I may, I cannot discover any time in which I have felt in the course of my work that I was performing any of the acts usually attributed to the inventor. So far as I can see, I have come up against situations that seemed to me to call for assistance. I was not usually at all sure that I could aid in improving the state of affairs in any way, but was fascinated by the challenge. So I would study the matter over; I would have my assistants bring before me everything that had been published about it, including the patent literature dealing with attempts to better the situation. When I had the facts before me I simply did the obvious thing. I tried to discern the weakest point and strengthen it; often this involved alterations with many ramifications which immediately revealed the scope of the entire project. Almost never have I hit upon the right solution at first. I have brought up in my imagination one remedy after another and must confess that I have many times rejected them all, not yet perceiving the one that looked simple, practical and hard-headed. Sometimes it is days and even months later that I am brought face to face with something that suggests the simple solution that I am looking for.

To read about why Sperry’s method won’t work for drug development today, go to the Pharma of the Future? blog entry, Modeling as a framework for knowledge synthesis. If you want to peruse all of the previous sock-knocking blog entries, visit the Knocked My Socks Off archive. (links to another blog site) 

1. to learn more about Sperry, go to:
2. as quoted in: Hughes TP. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2004:20.