How One Small Observation Can Lead to Innovation

Notice something peculiar or out of place? Take a moment to stop and ask why. That one moment may lead to the next big discovery.

“The true creator may be recognized by his ability to always find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note.” — Igor Stravinsky

Innovation is typically triggered from small observations: noticing the smallest details, what is missing, what is contrary, what looks out of place and what is unexpected. Indeed, reveling in every-day things that most people take for granted is what distinguishes the creative mind.

Let's explore just a few examples out of many...

The Microwave Oven: Perry Spencer, a Raytheon engineer, was experimenting with magnetron tubes for a radar project. One day, he noticed a peanut cluster bar in his pocket had unexpectedly melted. Curious, he placed an egg under a magnetron tube and ended up with cooked egg on his face. He then popped corn kernels the next day and shared the world’s first microwave popcorn with his officemates. His discovery led to a better understanding of microwave energy and the first microwave oven.

X-Rays: Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with cathode rays, trying to see if they could pass through glass. He noticed a nearby chemically coated screen started to glow. By placing various items in the path of the rays, including his own hand, he noticed the rays penetrated human flesh but not denser material like bone and lead. Even better, the result could be photographed. He dubbed them x-rays.

Velcro: Swiss engineer George de Mestral was on a hunting trip in the woods with his dog when he noticed tiny burs covering his pants and his dog's hair. He examined the burs under a microscope and discovered dozens of tiny hooks. He wondered if a synthetic version could be created as a new type of fastener. Eight years later, he patented velcro, a combination of the words “velvet” and “crochet” that described the hook and loop material inspired by the bur.

What do these discoveries have in common? A small observation, followed by a simple question, led to innovation.

So... the next time you observe something peculiar or out of place, stop for a moment and wonder why.