An Innovation ‘Formula’: X + Y

By Shlomo Maital  

pencil and eraser

    Some 158 years ago, on March 30, 1858,  Hymen Lipman was granted a patent for his invention of a pencil with a built-in eraser (U.S. Patent # 19,783).  Lipman was a stationery entrepreneur.  He invented many practical devices that made office work easier and faster —  for instance, putting glue on the flap of an envelope. 

    Patents require things that are “novel” and “non-obvious”.  Erasers existed. Pencils existed (since 1565, when a Swiss scientist filled a wood cylinder with graphite, found to be better for marking than lead.  (Apparently, until the 1770s, pencil marks were erased using balled-up bread!).  Isn’t it obvious that pencils need erasers on them?  Yes – but only after someone thinks of it and does it.

     Lipman understood that innovation requires two things: novelty and usefulness.  Putting an eraser on a pencil was highly useful.  Lipman sold his patent in 1862 for the enormous sum of $100,000 ($2 million in today’s money) to Joseph Reckendorfer, in 1862.   Soon, the patent was infringed by A.W. Faber, the pencil company, and Rekendorfer sued.  The U.S. Supreme Court said,  no infringement!   The eraser pencil was nothing new. All Lipman had done is combine an eraser (X) with a pencil (Y),  two known technologies.

    The court got it totally wrong.   A great many inventions involve combining in unique ways, existing things.  X + Y is a known, proven formula for innovation. Take for instance one of my former students Do Hyun Kim, a Korean engineer with LG,  who in 1985 combined a VCR with a TV, in a single box, called it Viewmax – and it became a huge hit.  Was this an innovation?   Of course. 

     Take two existing things. Combine them in a unique way.  You have an innovation, if it is useful for lots of people.  X + Y is innovative, even if the Supreme Court doesn’t think so.  Putting WiFi Internet connections into appliances — innovation?  Internet of Things?  of course. 

Source: Haaretz daily, March 30, p. 4.

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