The origins of invention

“The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention…Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs. This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But he finds ample compensation in the pleasing exercises of his powers and in the knowledge of being one of that exceptionally privileged class without whom the race would have long ago perished in the bitter struggle against pitiless elements.

“I am credited with being one of the hardest workers and perhaps I am, if thought is the equivalent of labor, for I have devoted to it almost all of my waking hours. But if work is interpreted to be a definite performance in a specified time according to a definite performance in a specified time according to a rigid rule, then I may be worst of idlers. Every effort under compulsion demands a sacrifice of life — energy. I never paid such a price. On the contrary, I have thrived on my thoughts.

“I do not rush into actual work…I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.”

– Nikola Tesla, My Inventions

It is the conceptualization and realization of an idea that requires the most effort; the prototyping and manufacture is, while physically demanding, quite straightforward.

“When I was a freshly appointed instructor, I met a certain eminent historian of science. At the time I could only regard him with tolerant condescension. I was sorry for a man who, it seemed to me, was forced to hover about the edges of science. He was compelled to shiver endlessly in the outskirts, getting only feeble warmth from the distant sun of science-in-progress; while I, just beginning my research, was bathed in the heady liquid heat at the very center of the glow.

“In a lifetime of being wrong at many a point, I was never more wrong. It was I, not he, who was wandering in the periphery…I had fallen victim to the fallacy of the ‘growing edge’; the belief that only the very frontier of scientific advance counted; that everything that had been left behind by that advance was faded and dead. But is that true? Because a tree in spring buds and come greenly into leaf, are those leaves therefore the tree?…The leaves, by themselves, are no more than trivial fluttering decoration. It is the trunk and limbs that give the tree its grandeur and the leafs themselves their meaning.

“There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling with insight, that does not arise out of what went before. ‘If I have seen further than other men,’ said Isaac Newton, ‘it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.’ And to learn that which goes before does not detract from the beauty of a scientific discovery but, rather, adds to it; just as the gradual unfolding of a flower, as seen by time-lapse photography, is more wonderful than the mature flower itself, caught in stasis.”

– Isaac Asimov, Adding a Dimension: Seventeen Essays on the History of Science

Invention is based on past work. The study of past and current findings is the source of future discoveries.