Eureka Moments

Invention is often an act of combination of unrelated subjects or  of compounding an idea or transposing it from one field to another. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into an idea for a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. The Wright brothers used their knowledge of bicycle manufacturing to invent the airplane. (Their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings.) George de Mestral came up with Velcro after noticing burrs clinging to the fur of his dog. And Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the search algorithm behind Google by applying the ranking method used for academic articles to the sprawl of the World Wide Web; a hyperlink was like a citation.

The Nike slogan “Just Do It” materialized by Dan Wieden, a founder of the advertising agency Wieden Kennedy. thought of the last words uttered by the murderer Gary Gilmore before his execution – “Let’s do it.”  He had read Norman Mailer’s book “The Executioner’s Song” about  the murderer Gary Gilmore and remembered his last words “Let’s do it” uttered before his execution. When Wieden was asked for his Nike slogan ideas, Gilmore’s words just popped into his mind.

The idea for Post-it Notes came about when Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M, was daydreaming in church, thinking how annoying it was that the bookmarks he’d placed in his hymnal so frequently fell out. He then remembered Spencer Silver a 3M colleague’s talk about a new glue he’d developed: a glue so feeble that it could barely hold two pieces of paper together. That weak glue, Mr. Fry suddenly thought, might help him create the perfect bookmark, one that would stay put. Top management disagreed so Fry built a machine in his basement to produce the pads that were called “Post-It” notes. Management finally agreed to test the market and the Post-It note became a great success.

The Barbie doll was reportedly born when Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, was on vacation in Switzerland and saw an unusual doll in the window of a cigarette shop: the doll was a pretty, well-endowed young woman with platinum blond hair. Because Handler didn’t speak German, she didn’t realize that the doll was a sex symbol sold mainly to men. Instead she saw a prototype for a new toy for girls: an alternative to the baby dolls then popular.

The InnoCentive Web site, started by an Eli Lilly executive in 2001, has shown that solutions to difficult scientific problems (which are posted online, with a monetary reward attached to each challenge) are often solved by people working at the margins of their fields, who were able to think outside the box. Chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems. While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists.

Being able to step back and view things as an outsider, or from a slightly different angle, promotes creativity. This is why travel frequently seems to free the imagination, and why the young are often more innovative and inquisitive than older people.


Michael Michalko is a highly acclaimed creativity expert. To learn about him.

To learn about his books

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