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The Eureka Method: How to Think Like an Inventor

Written by: Dr. John Hershey
Inventor on 147 U.S. Patents
Author of The Eureka Method: How to Think Like an Inventor
Posted: November 4, 2011 @ 10:26 am

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In my experience, the passion to invent is stirred by two things: dissatisfaction with an existing product or service (i.e., too large, too slow, too expensive, too difficult to use), or a dream and desire to create something entirely new, a product or service that will augment humanity’s capability to reach farther, move faster, aggregate and analyze all sorts of data, or bring together pieces and form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Over my career I have been a named inventor on 147 U.S. patents. Over my career I have developed a process for identifying consumer needs and creating unique, patentable solutions that are relevant in the marketplace. I call this the Eureka Method. The Eureka Method is a mental discipline that can be learned and practiced to help you produce a Eureka! moment. You may call it an epiphany or a flash of insight, brilliance, or creative genius. It’s that moment when an inventive solution finally crystallizes in your imagination. I call this critical event a “Eureka! moment” in reference and tribute to Archimedes who had been wrestling with the problem of certifying a goldsmith’s claim that the crown he had made for the king was of pure gold. Upon solving the problem Archimedes exclaimed, “Eureka!” Translated, the Greek word means “I found it!” He had his solution and I found the title for my book.

I believe a disciplined approach that can be mastered to help the aspiring inventor reach the point of invention is needed. I wrote my book to teach how to do this and in it I show that Eureka! moments emerge from the application of tried-and-true principles rather than flashes of inspiration that come out of nowhere. The application of these principles create the Eureka! moments of inspiration or realization, which is really the end result of applied reasoning.

Edison, for example, held more than 1000 U.S. patents. He certainly did not wait for inspiration to come from the blue. Like other successful inventors, he applied a methodology to invention. He is quoted as saying, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go and try to invent it.” This is certainly a logical first step, and something I call “bottom-line-driven invention.”

Unfortunately, in my experience, focusing on the bottom line is not something that seems to come naturally to many inventors, particularly those new to inventing. Even Thomas Edison struggled with this early on in his career, ultimately leading him to say: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.” This, however, requires understanding of the customer.

How should you be looking for invention that integrates helpfully and naturally into the customer’s world? I believe it is best to consider the customer and the customer’s needs by answering six questions:

1. What does the customer do?
2. What does the customer want or need?
3. What is the customer’s culture?
4. What are the customer’s tools?
5. What is most natural for the customer?
6. What invention would be most easily integrated?

I discuss these more in my book, but suffice it to say that I believe a successful inventor is more than just an inventor who produces a new, useful, and nonobvious device, system, or method. A successful inventor is guided by what is important to the user who will benefit from the invention.

In my experience I have found three ways to encourage Eureka! moments. The first is by taking an unbounded thrust at a problem—a sort of no-holds-barred approach that need not be responsive to existing technology or cost considerations. This can often lead to a “Rube Goldberg” construction, but after the inspiration comes a realization of the constraints of technology and cost, and the initially unwieldy construction can then morph into something novel and useful.

A second technique for encouraging Eureka! moments is to exploit analogies. As a technical person, you might be aware of an effect, phenomenon, problem, or practice in one field. You and many others might know and understand this effect very well, but suddenly you turn to a completely different set of circumstances and you see a way to exploit an analogy of this effect in this different situation.

A third technique is by what I call “gaming the system.” In this approach, you identify the system within which society is operating and then try to find a nonprohibited way around the constraints. This can be a powerful technique, and you have probably used it yourself without realizing it.

History is replete with stories of Eureka! Moments. One often told in high school chemistry classes is about German chemist Friedrich August Kekule, who famously claimed to have realized that the benzene molecule must be shaped like a ring after having a dream of a snake swallowing its own tail. That these breakthrough realizations appear to come from the subconscious mind makes them seem magical, as if they are beyond our control and beyond the abilities of mere mortals. In reality, however, most of these stories are more legendary than true.

Indeed, the words of Thomas Edison seem far more in keeping with reality. Edison said: “I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.” But how do you work? I believe a structured approach and reflective analysis on the process are key.

My book comprises eight chapters and an appendix that reviews the patenting process. There are also exercises that will help you solidify your mastery of the concepts. Chapter 1 poses questions that you should always keep in the back of your mind when you invent. Chapter 2 looks at “improvement inventions.” These are the lion’s share of inventions and a good place to start the journey.

Chapter 3 deals with inventions that result from inspirations generated by a desire to “game the system” or by the complementary desire, or need, to prevent the system from being gamed. I have had success in generating Eureka! moments myself by first understanding a system and then searching for a way to game it. At the root of it, there is a suspicion that every successful inventor has a bit of a rebel nature. Thinking in the mode of gaming the system is, quite frankly fun, and I think you will be surprised at how powerful it can be in motivating creativity.

Chapter 4 was written to help you expand your inventive vision. It proceeds by demonstrating that the incorporation of extra dimensions or features to a product or process can result in something of greater value than the sum of its parts. But these new dimensions must be chosen carefully so that they will provide increased value.

Chapter 5 is concerned with combination inventions that result by melding two or more exiting methods or technologies into a novel system. Patentable new inventions can be conceived by bringing together disparate elements to form a new and useful combination that is non-obvious but quickly goes viral. By looking at the many dimensions of a device or system you can identify combinations of things that might at first seem unrelated.

The final three chapters are dedicated to helping you seek your own Eureka! moments. One of the most powerful ways is to obtain a solid understanding of laws, regulations, and standards for your opportunities. These paths involve high stakes and potentially high rewards for successful inventors. They are not the usual paths of opportunity, but they can offer some of the best chances to create inventions that have an enormous impact. Technological progress and regulation are closely intertwined. If you can learn to think ahead of the curve, you will be in a privileged position. Remember Edison’s statement that he first determined what the world needed and then he proceeded to invent it? If you can foresee what regulations are likely to follow an imminent advance in technology, you would be ahead of Edison’s approach and your Eureka! moment might produce an invention that, if protected by patent, would carve out a large and lucrative space.

For many, inventing is simply a passion, something they are driven to do by the force of things that interest them. If that is who you are, by channeling your energies you can greatly increase the likelihood of having your own Eureka! moment.

About the Author

Dr. John Hershey is the author of The Eureka Method: How to Think Like an Inventor. Dr. Hershey is also an accomplished inventor, with 147 U.S. patents to his credit in fields including spread spectrum, digital TV, 3-D display, medical devices, logistics, e-commerce, jet engine prognostics, radar, cryptography, power line communications, sensors, satellite communications, railroading and signal processing. He was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for contributions to secure communications. He is the author or coauthor of eight books and two encyclopedia entries. He worked in the intelligence community and the U.S. Department of Commerce, helped build a regional office of a major government services company, and most recently served at the General Electric Global Research Center in upstate new York. He has taught as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Colorado, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Union Graduate College.


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