Innovation's Wall of Worry

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IRIS.jpg

IRIS, Inc.


Great technical ideas often must overcome unexpected obstacles. Take the Xerox 914 copier, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, which pioneered the system behind today's laser printers. It needed toner able to resist high temperatures, and the chemist who developed it really should be considered a co-inventor. (I consider the 914's impact in this essay that has just appeared in the July-August magazine.) The project could have easily been dropped as impractical if the leaders of the Haloid Co. (later the Xerox Corp.) as well as the principal inventor, Chester Carlson, had not been so determined.

That raises a big question regarding alternative energy ideas. Inventors have everything to gain from being candid about obstacles. Industry inertia and the not-invented-here mentality do exist, but there's often no way to predict how much money and time it will take to solve remaining problems. Mark Twain notoriously lost his fortune on an automatic typesetter that never quite worked. Even now I don't think we have efficient ways of matching inventors with problems and potential solutions.

The conventional internal combustion engine of the 19th century has survived decades of challenges The National Geographic Magazine recently featured a radically new internal combustion design, the IRIS engine. The inventors and I discuss it on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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