Lessons in creativity from the world's leading inventors

Great inventors can come from any background - from self-taught inventor and Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr to qualified engineer James Dyson, for example. But there’s certain qualities they all share. Have you got what it takes?

Be a perfectionist

To get a product to market, you have to be prepared to make it perfect. That means endless iterations and superhuman determination. Back in the 1950s, it took the Rocket Chemical Company 40 attempts to perfect their rust preventor - hence the WD-40 we know and love today. James Dyson’s [below] first bagless vacuum cleaner went through around 5,100 prototypes over five years before it was fit to go to market. And even then, the big companies weren’t interested, forcing him to set up his own company.

Don’t fear the day job

Wouldn’t it be great to work on your invention all day, every day? Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen until it’s a success. To create that success, you’ve got to be able to juggle the demands of the day job that brings in the money - along with the knotty conundrums that your invention throws up. That means developing vital time management and compartmentalising skills. And don’t imagine that you have to be an engineer or a scientist during the day to be a successful inventor. Sometimes that day job can provide the inspiration you need. Just ask Tangle Teezer inventor Shaun Pulfrey: he came up with his hairbrush design after trying every brush on the market in his day job as a hair colourist. His company’s currently worth £200m.

Quiz: Who said what about creativity?

Learn from everyone

The days of the lone inventor beavering away in a shed are long gone. These days, collaboration and a willingness to learn are key. That could be teaching yourself engineering and design basics with a free online course, spending time in a maker space with fellow inventors, or putting your invention out there for user testing (and really listening to the feedback). And while it’s easier than ever these days to teach yourself inventing, it’s certainly not a new concept. Hedy Lamarr [below], film idol of Hollywood’s Golden Age, invented a frequency-hopping technology which is the precursor of today’s Bluetooth. She was entirely self-taught, gleaning knowledge from her first husband, arms merchant Friedrich Mandl, and from her friend aircraft magnate Howard Hughes. And she developed her invention with a friend: pianist George Antheil.

Big yourself up

It’s one thing to invent something amazing and quite another to persuade people that they need it. Great inventors are also fantastic advocates for their products. They won’t shut up about them, and it’s their mission to convince the world that they’re right. These days, it’s easier than ever to get the word out about your product on social media, in particular. So learn the basics of marketing, and don’t wait for publicity to come to you. Rob Law, inventor of children’s ride-on luggage Trunki, went on Dragons’ Den in 2006 to get investment, but went away empty-handed. But retailers such as John Lewis were also watching, and saw the potential in his idea. Since then, they’ve sold millions.

Read: Five stories of real-life creative success

Be a problem-solver

For an invention to truly hit the spot, it needs to either fill a gap in the market or create an entirely new market. That means a good inventor is always trying to identify problems: what they are, who has them, why they have them, and what would solve them. It’s a mindset that’s always questioning and seeking out new knowledge: Trevor Bayliss, inventor of the wind-up radio, was watching a TV programme covering the rapid spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa. He correctly identified that getting education and information about this new threat to populations spread over huge areas and with little access to technology was a huge issue, and one that a wind-up radio could solve. It took him just 30 minutes to put together his first prototype.

Be honest with yourself

It’s easy to persuade yourself that you’ve found something genuinely innovative and life-changing. That’s the dream, after all. And it can be hard to tell the difference between letting go of a project that is never likely to work, and giving up on something. But if you’re going to succeed in the future, you need to look at your project with clear eyes, and admit to yourself if you’ve come to the end of the road. Even a genius like Thomas Edison [above] had plenty of failures under his belt: his automatic vote counter, electric pen, talking doll and Home Projecting Kinetoscope - an early home movie projector - never caught on. But he knew when to leave something behind. Remember: this isn’t the end of your inventing career - it’s the beginning of your next project.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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