Innovation's Wall of Worry

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.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In