Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evan Schwartz - Juice the Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors

I have ordered books at way too often. They make it too easy with sneak-a-peek, reader reviews, one-click ordering, and free shipping with an order > $35. So I admit I have books on the shelf that I thought would be good, but never got around to reading.

Evan Schwartz's Juice the Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors is just such a book. Tonight, looking for something for the blog, I resumed reading it and I would say so far (not done yet) this is an excellent book on the process of invention. It is not a theoretical tome, but a series of stories how various people invented important technologies in the last 60 years or so.

I will give one example from Mr. Schwartz's book, because it shows invention happens despite corporate trappings. The inventor's name was Nick Holonyak, who by his own admission was not 100% smart, and got lucky to be the first graduate student of John Bardeen, who co-invented the transistor at Bell Labs.

Later Mr. Holonyak joined GE to improve semiconductors, and heard something odd that distracted him from his work. Semiconductors could produce invisible IR. He began testing (i.e., playing around) with various semiconductors and learned that gallium arsenide phosphide when "juiced" with electricity emitted a speck of red light.

Mr. Schwartz tells us Mr. Holonyak "created this opportunity in his mind. My colleagues thought I was a bit nutty." He had to "keep his secret from his boss" and "worked on the sly for two years" noting if management discovered him working on this, "I would have been in trouble and gotten fired."

It sounds a bit crazy, right? But I was told by another semiconductor pioneer Armen Sahagen that his company had tasked him, and his team to establish the "right conditions" so the semiconductor they were using would quit generating that annoying light! He laughed and laughed after he told me this story.

Mr. Holonyak is widely credited with inventing the light-emitting diodes-- the LED. Of course, today LEDs are in use everywhere. Why? They can last ten years or longer, are incredibly efficient, and produce little heat. Mr. Schwartz tells us there are "twelve LED-based products sold for every person on earth."

Thanks to Mr. Holonyak having the insight and guts to invent something that matters. Corporate management can "juice" innovation not by tightly "managing" the people, but giving them the support to really innovate.

Although I am still reading Mr. Schwartz book, I can recommend it because this story and others match what I have observed in over two decades of working with inventors. Most of the good ones are just like this. They "create opportunities in the mind," are a "little sly," and at times must shield their nascent work from skepticism and corporate objectives, while having the sense to "spring it on management" once it is ready.

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