Invention or Discovery? 1/3


Inventions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are as simple as purple hairspray. Others push the boundaries of quantum physics. The real measure of an invention is not just how well it works or how impressively it is made, but how it changes our lives. Inventions help fulfil people’s six basic needs: food, sleep, security, shelter, companionship, and good health.

An invention is defined as a new solution to a specific technical problem, with new meaning that the solution has never appeared before. It is based on a novel idea or an improvement of an earlier idea. The problem it seeks to solve has to be a real and practical problem. If it is industrially applicable, it can be manufactured and we can make money from it. An invention is not the same as a discovery. A discovery is the recognition of a phenomenon, property or law of the material universe not hitherto recognised. An invention, on the other hand, is the creation of the human brain. An invention is man-made, and does not exist until it is invented whereas a discovery has always been there waiting to be discovered! Fire is a discovery while the wheel is an invention. Ferrites or magnetic oxides are stones that attract iron and other metals, meaning they have magnetic properties. Lodestones, as they were called, were first discovered thousands of years ago. These are natural stones and are hence not inventions. However, the machine that we make with magnets are inventions. The compass and dynamo for example, are inventions. The bicycle you ride on is an invention. The car you drive is an invention. These inventions are now part of our everyday lives. Below are three more examples to help you differentiate between discovery and invention.

Example One: Archimedes (285-212 B.C.) was a mathematician and inventor from ancient Greece. He discovered the relation between the surface and volume of a sphere and its circumference (he had discovered pi). He then formulated a hydrostatic principle based on that mathematical relationship called Archimedes1 principle. With that principle, he invented the Archimedes screw: a screw-shaped machine or hydraulic screw that raised water from a lower to a higher level. Along the way, Archimedes also invented the catapult, the lever, the compound pulley and the burning mirror (a system of mirrors that burned the ships of invading armies by focusing the sun’s rays).

Example two: Dry ice was discovered, not invented. It is a natural substance.  The name was trademarked by the first company to sell dry ice. The Dry Ice Corporation of America first trademarked the name Dry Ice in 1925. Dry Ice is the generic name for carbon dioxide in its solid form, frozen at -109.3°For -79.5°C. Dry Ice does not melt – it sublimates. Sublimation is the process of going directly from a solid to a gas, thus its name “Dry” Ice. Dry Ice will sublimate at a rate of five to ten pounds every 24 hours during typical use. Have you ever held dry ice in your hands? It is so cold it stings.

Example Three: In 1799, Sir Humphrey Davy  discovered nitrous oxide or “laughing gas” as it is more commonly known. Although it would later be used in surgery, Davy also made his parties more entertaining by inventing party games using nitrous oxide to make his guests laugh.


The art of inventing isn’t all that difficult. Human beings have been inventing things for thousands of years. Everything that we see or use that is made by man was an invention when it first appeared. Think of the hunting tools, farming implements, water vessels and body decorations used by our ancestors in days yonder. They were all invented. In this modern age we are still inventing and at a much greater pace than ever before due to the advent of modern technology. Inventions do not have to be earth-shattering to change the world. Even small inventions can impact the world. Imagine how different our world would be if the humble paper clip or paper for that matter, were not invented. In fact, thousands of small inventions are also created everyday when people around the world are solving problems that they encounter in their daily lives. These, of course, are not publicized and they get re-invented all the time!

Many inventions have taken several centuries to develop into their modern forms and are rarely the product of a single inventor’s mind. Edison’s electric light bulb, for instance, was the product of a whole team of engineers working with ideas from earlier inventors. Every breakthrough is a collective effort that rides on existing ideas in novel ways. Each invention may be just one small step on the road to the ultimate destination, optimistically assuming there is one. Every object has a history, and behind that history an inventor, the person who thought it up first. Sometimes who was first can be a topic for hot debate or controversy. Often several people independent of each other will all think of the same   good idea at around the same time and will later have to argue as to who thought of it first.

Fortunately we have a system for protecting your invention if you are the first to invent it. Patent it. Being creative and inventing is not a problem.  It is protecting one’s intellectual property and commercialising the invention that is the problem and the challenge in the world of today. While the inventor should be rewarded for his efforts there are many unethical opportunists out there who are always ready to pounce on other people’s brainchild for their own benefit, inventors should file their patents early to protect their exclusive rights to their inventive product. Inventors also need to commercialise their inventions and bring them to the marketplace. A patent gives the exclusive right to stop others from manufacturing, using and/or selling the owner’s invention. The invention is the owner’s intellectual property and he has the right to benefit from it. Patent holders should seek world-wide rights to their inventions. The owner can also sell his rights to others if he so desires. Many patent lawyers have advised inventors to think and work like businessmen. Inventors and researchers need to push their products and findings more aggressively rather than just promoting them as scientific or academic breakthroughs. Businessmen are more interested in a product’s commercial potential and value rather than the inventive or scientific achievement. The reverse is true for scientists and academicians whose research findings tend to be forgotten once the research is completed. Fortunately today many universities have research commercialisation units to ensure that the processes and products that are potentially profitable are brought to the market.

Another avenue for inventors is to form smart partnerships with investors as the former has inventions but no finance while the opposite is generally true for the latter. Invention exhibitions are the ideal place for both parties to meet. Exhibition organisers are most happy to become match-makers in this respect. Special arrangements are made for inventors and investors to meet. Exhibitions also function as international platforms to promote and enhance the development and utilisation of inventions across national barriers. Exhibitions not only help create opportunities for network building between local and international inventors world­wide, they also maximise the exposure of award winning products an technologies to a global market


Everybody can invent. We don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci, recognised to be one of the greatest inventors the world has ever known, to invent something. Everyone is a potential inventor. Inventors cut across all age groups, gender and socio-economic status. There is no typical profile of an inventor. We have very young inventors as well as elderly inventors from our male as well as female population. From the professional research scientist backed by lavish funding to the amateur penny-pinching home hobbyist come exciting inventions that make our lives more comfortable and much easier. There are also everyday inventors who invent solutions to their immediate problems after which the inventions are forgotten as the problem has been solved. These are the unsung heroes, housewives, gardeners, hobbyists and others who go about their daily business with no fanfare.

History has taught us that inventions are seldom the work of any one mind. Every great invention is really either an aggregation of minor inventions, or the final step of a progression which may stretch for centuries. It is not so much a creation as a growth or development. The same invention is frequently brought out in several countries, and by several individuals, sometimes simultaneously. Inventors often work on the same or similar invention without knowing of each other’s existence. Inventors however, work in teams too. Teamwork helps as the members have the benefit of synergistic advantages. They can ride on each other’s ideas. More brains can think and create better than one, just as many hands make lighter work.

It has been mentioned often that necessity is the mother of invention. We improvise and invent when the situation requires it. Sometimes it is a matter of survival while at other times it is to make our life easier or more comfortable. For example, do we really need air conditioning for survival or do we want it for comfort? A prominent Illinois socialite invented the dishwashing machine because her maids kept breaking her fine china and no one wanted to invent such a machine for her. A young Terengganu school girl invented a bacteria killing food cover because her father kept getting stomachache after eating left over food. There are also inventions that have no apparent need. They seem to be quirks of imagination of the inventive mind. There are many crazy inventions around which seem to serve no real useful purpose, as yet. Maybe, their time will come. Quite often an important invention is made before the world is ready for it, and the unhappy inventor is taught, by his failure, that it is as unfortunate to be ahead of his time as it is to be behind it. Many of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of all sorts of inventions were so far ahead of their time that they never saw daylight till centuries later. Amazingly, many so-called inventions hailed as originating in the West were actually invented many years earlier elsewhere in the civilised world. In the same vein, many inventors were ecstatic when they thought they have come up with new inventions to discover later that they had already been invented, patented and commercially sold somewhere else. Inventions only become successful when they are not only needed, but when mankind is ready to appreciate and to make use of them.

It is very important to remember that inventing, i.e. the bringing of creative ideas into reality, is something that can be learned. It may come naturally to some people but for most of us mere mortals it requires determination, perseverance, resilience and a bit of luck to be a successful inventor. There are many invention associations all over the world, and amongst their most popular activities are invention workshops where people learn to invent.


People are creative and inventive when there is a need. Some invent out of desperation. And there are some who earn a living by inventing, but there are also some inventors who invent for the sheer joy of inventing- Inventions can also be created by accident. Behind every invention there is a story.


Leo, A. M (2015). On Invention. Mindskill management and Consultancy. Kuala Lumpur.

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