January/February 2011

Back to Edison, back to innovation

By Dr. James Truchard

Innovation, from the Latin innovationem, dates back to at least 1540, and it basically means to renew or change. With so much change in the last 400 years, it is frightening to think somewhere during the last 100 years or so, we have lost the critical renewal of innovation-that which funded and inspired the inventions that propelled us into modernism and delivered luxuries we now take for granted. Somehow, we lost the urge to innovate. I am not sure if it was an individual dimming of passion or the lack of an environment to foster innovation, but I am sure it has escaped us.

The 5 June 2010 issue of TIME magazine recounted the impact of Thomas Edison's idea factory and his relevance today. Edison's approach to ideas and results-"a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so"-would be implausible if it was not true. Inspired by the 3 January 1888 entry in Edison's idea book, which outlined his "things doing and to be done," Edison's list was filled with projects ranging from ink for the blind, to the cotton picker, to a battery for the phone-a design that remained in use until just a few years ago.

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Of course, Edison was not the only one to make a historical impact on the world as we know it. Great inventors including Benjamin Franklin, Cyrus McCormick with his harvester, Samuel F.B. Morse and the telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, all contributed in invaluable ways. Edison just happened to patent a mind-boggling 1,093 mechanisms and processes before his death.

Unfortunately for our younger generations and ourselves, the past few decades have not produced Edison-like innovation or impact in technology, and as a result, we are in a critical situation. You only have to look at the Engineering Grand Challenges outlined by the National Academy of Engineering to comprehend the gravity of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. From nuclear terror prevention to providing access to clean water and developing carbon sequestration methods, the global needs are vast.

To deliver on these needs the way Edison delivered on telecommunication advances, the inventors of today-engineers and scientists around the globe-must nurture and embrace the charter in front of us to make a difference. Ideally we would fix the situation at the root cause-when and how our children are learning. The great inventors and scientists learned not through textbooks and lectures, but through hands-on trial and error. If our up-and-coming scientists and engineers can solve real problems directly and experience first-hand creative failures and successes, we will be headed in the right direction. Of course, we have to look at our professional environments as well as our academic surroundings. Manufacturers must cultivate an environment of innovation to ensure a competitive edge. This includes employers that reward productive failure-implementing more transparency that is not a negative thing, but instead a learning experience. Together, we must do what it takes to shift our focus back to innovation and invention.

National Instruments is doing our part. By providing the very latest advances in software system design tools and hardware capabilities for test and design, our customers are developing sustainable solutions to some of the toughest engineering challenges we are faced with today.

We start with academia. Following the lead from the great inventors, hands-on learning proves to be more interesting for students and more effective. Programs are available for every age-the LEGO WeDo for seven year olds, LEGO Mindstorms for 10 year olds, Project Lead the Way for middle and high school students, the Infinity Project for middle and high school students, and FIRST Robotics for elementary age students through university.

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In industry, you just have to take a look at the list of things our customers are doing today. Engineers and scientists tackling the Engineering Grand Challenges with graphical system design techniques are impressive, from using our embedded NI CompactRIO platform and LabVIEW software for hydraulic fracking, automatic pipeline leak detection, designing zero footprint ATE systems, and creating deployed smart grid analyzers. We have our weakest position of technology leadership in one of the most critical challenges we face, which ironically, Edison basically invented so many years ago-energy. We must deliver on major leaps in innovation for alternative, clean, and sustainable forms of energy; we are already behind and falling back more each year. However, reviewing the current list of "things doing and to be done," there are exciting glimmers of hope for energy innovation, giving optimism for our future in a tangible way. The graphical system design approach to empowering domain experts with the right tools for the job dramatically increases the odds that many truly "big things" will be accomplished. In fact, I believe Edison would be proud of your "things doing and to be done" list, so keep it up, and we will keep an eye out for the next generation of Edisons.


Dr. James Truchard is the president, CEO, and co-founder of National Instruments in Austin, Tex.