Kaley Bent / Gavel Media

The Science of Inventing

The human race is a species of dreamers. Humankind has been striving for advancement since the outset of history. Pagan Kennedy, former professor of creative writing at Boston College as well as author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World, came to speak at BC in order to provide insight into the inventive nature that defines us.

Pagan Kennedy is well known for her New York Times column "Who Made That." The column later became a pivotal point in her career, as it pushed her to continuously delve deeper into the process behind how ideas for life-altering inventions are actualized. Eventually, the stories of inventors she gathered became the groundwork for her novel.

When she first began her column, Kennedy expected to be speaking mainly to engineers. However, more often than not, she found herself tracking down ordinary people. As time went on, she began to notice trends that carried through between the different inventors.

The first pattern Kennedy noticed was that personal pain often led to the best ideas. “Have skin in the game,” she recommends. She found that it was not enough to simply engage with intellectual ideas, but that the most successful inventors had something at stake. This led them to become so obsessed with the problem that they were trying to solve that they were “...waking up at three in the morning, and that’s when their imagination took off.”

This became the case for improving upon the design of suitcases. Before people flew frequently, suitcases without wheels were the standard. But pilots were tasked with loading and unloading cargo holds, and so it was a pilot who saw an opportunity. He designed a suitcase with wheels that wouldn’t tip, and changed the way we travel.

The power of the outsider plays a prominent role in inventology. Those that have dedicated their lives to a specific field reach a plateau, or an intellectual rut. “Insider” thinking becomes rigid, but “outsiders,” with their unique perspective on the subject, can make groundbreaking advancements.

Kennedy asked the crowd why a plastic surgeon might have been the father of automobile safety. Quite simply, it was the surgeon who spent the most time with victims, and knew how to prevent debilitating injuries.

“In a certain field it’s like an echo chamber,” Kennedy explained. “They know about the same problems and the same solutions.” One of the challenges of innovation then becomes to bring those groups of people together.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of inventology is that you need to be able to glimpse what the world will be instead of how it is. “Find the people who you think are living the future,” Kennedy recommends. “Maybe ten people are experiencing that problem. But maybe in ten years, all of us are going to be experiencing that problem.” You need to skate to where the puck is going to be, instead of where it is.

Martin Cooper changed the world because of his ability to predict trends. Working in Motorola and testing walkie-talkies, Cooper found that once people had portable communication, they were unwilling to go back. And now we, as a nation of cell phone addicts, would feel the same.

Finally, Kennedy found that inventors are often able make something out of nothing. Problems that other people don’t want to solve are where the opportunities remain.

Ultimately, inspiration takes a back seat in Kennedy’s eyes. Luck is the true common thread between countless inventors. It takes luck to notice a problem before someone else and it takes luck to have your idea become developed. But, as it’s well known, luck nearly always favors the prepared mind.

So what does the mind of an inventor look like? Rather than an expert in one field, the successful entrepreneur is more likely someone who can engage both sides of their brain, and use hard science to tackle an old problem.

Kennedy’s lecture is part of the ongoing Lowell Lecture Series, in which the English department brings guest speakers to enhance the student’s learning experience. Professor Eileen Donovan-Kranz says on the Lowell Lecture Series, “The point, for me, is to get students integrated into the world of ideas, and to interact with the authors of those ideas—that's a very different experience from reading a book... it can be a heady experience to find oneself in interaction with authors, ideas, and all the others in the audience who also took out time to come listen.”

Much like the mind of a successful inventor, the Lowell Lecture Series allows BC students the opportunity to see fields they’re interested in merge together. For BC students with dreams of improving the quality of life, Kennedy’s research made for a greater understanding of the integral aspects of the science of inventing.  

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