Sometimes when we look around us we can see things that appear to be simple in design yet achieve a level of efficiency that we take for granted. The electric light bulb is one such invention. Who could have imagine that two centuries ago this did not exist? We could say the same for paper clips or even the plastic switches we use to turn electrical items on and off. Perhaps by virtue of their effectiveness, they have become ubiquitous and unfortunately become overlooked.
The barbed wire fence is another of such inventions. Invented in the late 1870s in America, it was the brainchild of one John Gates. It is a simply idea – a wire intertwining barbs to hold them together – that when it was first invented, and demonstrated using cattle, people doubted that the fragile looking fence could actually pen livestock in. Gates himself displayed the acumen of a businessman, and took bets on whether the fence could keep Texan longhorns enclosed. His penchant for gambling on the success of the invention earned him the nickname “Bet a Million” Gates. His wire fence probably made him that amount many times over!
The simplest design can turn out to be the most effective. And sometimes inventions are evolved as improvements over old existing items. For example, the piano was not invented until about 1750, over a hundred years after the organ was invented. But the origins of the piano were actually further back – traceable back to instruments such as the hydraulis, for example. And the piano can be seen as improvements over previous keyboard instruments, and even so when it was invented, the early design could still be improved. (Find out more about the piano’s origins here.)
So perhaps a good way to come up with an invention would be to try to improve existing designs. If you need a big idea, there’s a whole field of untapped potential to examine!