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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Inventors need to have lots of intuition, instincts, creativity

July 13. 2014 9:08PM

Last week, I described the basic assumption in the animal world that the maximum speed of a species and its degree of protection from predators has a counter-proportional relationship. Namely the faster the animal can run, the thinner its armor.

A cheetah that is clocked at 70 mph doesn’t really need heavy armor. Thus it has none. Meanwhile, the giant tortoise that could run at the blitzkrieg speed of 0.17 mph is covered by tank-like armor. The relationship is cursory and nonquantitative.

And that’s what an inventor needs as a part of instinct. In all aspects of inventions, pragmatism should be applied first and then precise calculation second if it is needed.

Thomas Edison was once looking for an assistant. It was customary that his interview consisted of various questions about the candidate with one significant question that Edison considered important. At one such interview he showed a candidate his light bulb and asked to compute the volume without destroying the bulb. The candidate started earnestly the process of computing the volume by using a three-dimensional integrating equation. After some serious concentration in pushing a pencil, this candidate came up with a figure. The work took about 30 minutes.

Edison took the answer from the candidate. Then he took a beaker and filled it with water to the brim. Then, he dipped the bulb fully into the beaker. A quantity of water overflowed. When he pulled the light bulb out of the beaker, it was no longer full to the brim. Edison read the water level, and read off the volume. This took about two minutes. He then said to the candidate to recheck the figure as he thought there was some error. Edison was right.

This candidate didn’t ask Edison the reason why the measurement was needed. Does it have to be very precise? Can it be an approximate figure? How fast did Edison want the answer? My feeling is that Edison was looking for the candidate’s instinctive grasp of the problem. Namely intuition.

In science intuition plays a major role in discovery, innovation and invention. Using many layers of mathematical equations to solve problems is impressive, but complex procedures could also introduce errors. You must sharpen the sense of intuition if you want to succeed as an inventor.

Pet projects

From time to time I list particular industries for our 99 percent inventors to examine in their effort to find items to invent. Let’s not forget that the necessary condition for an invention to succeed is to solve an existing problem. Whether the industry you want to work in is new or old doesn’t matter. A solution looking for a problem just isn’t going to work. However, the larger the industry, it is probably easier for you to find some nooks and crannies to get into.

Remember you are a little guy starting out, so do not challenge something huge that is far beyond your means. There are some very successful people in this world who came out of nowhere and succeeded in starting enterprises that people thought impossible. Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX is one, and Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines is another. However, instead of dreaming to duplicate their success, I suggest dreaming of just getting one little invention going. A Chinese proverb says “Know your enemy first. Then know about yourself. You would often find that war is not necessary.”

One of the most important criteria in getting an invention accomplished and making a profit from it is to look for an industry that is growing steadily. There are many industries that look fancy and attractive for amateurs. But if you plot their growth curves, you’d find they are often like the saw tooth. Up slowly and down fast. Plus overall growth from year to year isn’t there.

One industry that has been growing steadily without even a single year of dip is the pet industry. As you see the growth curve of FIG 1, the industry has been growing steadily at the rate of 6.4 percent per year. It even grew through the bad recession of 2006 to 2009. The expenditure of roughly $60 million in 2014 means roughly $195 spent per capita in this country.

The growth rate of a steady 6.4 percent is a great figure by any comparison. To fully appreciate the great rate of growth, the industry expenditure will grow by approximately $4 billion every year for now. That $4 billion is entirely from new business, which didn’t exist before. If you like animals such as dogs, cats, birds and other species, get your inventive mind working to come up with some ideas that solve problems.

The reason why I recommend you to work in the growing industry is that you could make mistakes, and they will be soon forgotten through the pace of growth. That isn’t the case if you work in the industry that is either stagnant or shrinking. Your precious capital, if any, will be soon spent with no return. Another advantage in working in a steadily growing industry is that the capacity you build can be likely operated at an efficient and steady rate. That means cost of operation is steady and controllable.

Good, good and good. Please observe the growth curve of the pet industry carefully. It has no dip.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who’s improved our life. He is a businessman and inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, and is credited as the original inventor of the portable fax machine. He developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at


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