Essentials of Social Psychology

Chapter 9: Invention and Leadership

Emory S. Bogardus

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1. The Social Psychology of Invention. Invention and leadership are related phenomena. In a broad sense, leadership includes inventing, discovering, prophesying, organizing, and also directing natural and social forces. The analysis of leadership must be preceded by a study of the social psychology of invention.

The history of invention is concerned not with "the unoriginal moments of any man's life, nor with the stolid procession that never had a thought of their own," but with the brightest, happiest, creative moments of the most fortunate minds of all races and in part with the most beneficent contributions of mankind.[1]

(1) Invention means coining upon, seeing into, and perceiving new relationships. Two hitherto unconnected ideas come together in the mind, a mental flash occurs, the ideas are correlated, and invention results.

To see a new relationship is the essence of invention. In ancient Babylon, individual characters were stamped upon brick, but it was not until centuries later that the simple process of putting the individual char-

(170) -acters together and of substituting printing for writing was invented. When Heracles undertook the task of cleaning the Augean farmyard where 3000 oxen had been stabled for thirty years he first used his imagination, and instead of trying laborious methods he perceived that by turning the course of the Alpheus and Peneus rivers through the stables, the gigantic task would be accomplished in short order. According to Herodotus, Cyrus the Great was halted in his attack upon Babylon by the massive city walls, until a new idea flashed into his imagination, whereupon he ordered the waters of the Euphrates turned aside, and sending his army along the river bed and under the walls of the city, he took by surprise the hosts of Nebuchadnezzar, who had not anticipated such a stratagem.

(2) Inventions spring from individuality. To the extent that one's individuality finds expression in his work he invents. Every imitation is accompanied by at least a small degree of initiation. Since the imitator sees life at a somewhat different angle from the initiated, he will unconsciously, if not deliberately, incorporate new elements into the process—which is fundamental to all invention. The copying of the acts of another is influenced by the personal equation of the imitator. It is impossible for one person to copy exactly the handwriting of another, except presumably by diligent, painstaking, and concentrated effort. Hence invention and imitation are opposite poles of the same phenomenon—every imitation results in at least a slight modification, or invention.

(171) "Invention is as natural as imitation," [2] since it is the normal expression of individuality. Invention commences early in life. When the child begins to speak, he begins to invent. He names (a process of invention) his parents and himself (pa pa, ma ma, ba ba). He is full of new and original potentialities. Parents and teachers have their minds set upon standardizing him. But in the necessary disciplining, the parent and even the teacher often neglect to study and to encourage his inventive ability. The unique phases of his personality are likely to receive no studied attention unless they take the form of obstreperousness and recalcitrancy. It rarely occurs that he receives other than repressive treatment.

The teacher in one of our public schools could do nothing with a small Italian boy who was unruly beyond description. The principal gave up the boy and turned him over to a special school. There the teacher quietly watched the newcomer when he was playing in the schoolyard. His new playmates soon discovered his special ability to sing. Before the first day was over at the parental school, the wayward youth was playing truant, singing for pay to his new found admirers. He was singing rag-time, but with a voice that the parental school teacher recognized as remarkable. "Tony," said the teacher, "can you sing something from any of the Italian operas?" Immediately in tones of amazing purity, Tony sang La donna a mobile. "Would you like to take some music lessons?" asked the teacher. With tears quickly welling into his eves, Tony's heart melted and his mind leaped with the flash and fire of a new enthusiasm

(172) and yet an enthusiasm as old as the Italian race. He caused no more trouble to the school, and more important, his ability to create art—that is, to inventreceived recognition and effective encouragement.

In hearing new words and terms, the child commonly invents meanings for them. When he invents a wrong interpretation, his parents may scold him. They fail to see that what is a mistake to them is an invention of the child and that they may be suppressing what is most creative in their child. The little girl who upon seeing a homely yellow cat, said

"There goes an orange meow," had made a crude and simple invention of terms. The child who wanted to be tucked into bed at night and said: "Tighten me tip on both sides, Daddy," expressed in her own way an inaccurate but new connection of activities. In J standardizing children there is danger of being blind to the inventiveness that crops out through individuality. The danger lurks everywhere, from the methods of parental disciplining to the habit of some university instructors who grade high the students who memorize everything that the instructors expound, but do nothing else.

Invention, then, usually springs from the individualistic side of personality, in much the same way that itnitation is a resultant of sociality. Self initiative and assertion produce innovations. Inventions have not usually been made for the purpose of rendering public service but to satisfy some desire, or to secure an answer to some problem. Incidental to the process is the individual's love of inventing. The more creative the invention the greater the satisfac-

(173) -tion which comes to the individual.

(3) Effort leads to invention. The dynamic element in all instincts is fundamental to invention. The motor character of ideas is found in invention. Long, persistent mental toil is nearly always the price of an invention; the lazy rarely innovate. Almost all tiie greatest inventors have been indefatigable workers.

Invention may be as natural as imitation, but it is immeasurably more difficult. The inventor frequently finds himself against a stone wall, and it is only by concentrated effort in apparently hopeless and endless experimenting that the problem is solved. Individual initiative, agility of mind, and focalized attentionthese are essential to invention.

(4) Curiosity culminates in invention. The natural trend of the curiosity instinct is toward discovery. It is the inquiring mind which discovers, invents, creates. Inquiring, questioning, longing are the antecedents of invention.

The curiosity instinct interprets life in terms of problems—problems which call for answers and solutions. The inventive mind always is characterized by problems—problems which call forth incessant energy and focalization of effort. It is the person who has no questions to ask who rarely invents. Questioning is a precious trait, because it precedes invention.

(5) Invention is problem-solving. Invention arises from individual needs, from problems, from attempts to extricate oneself from difficulties, from a reasonable degree of worrying. The starting point is a problem; the next essential is a desire to solve the problem; then collection and analysis of data are

(174) necessary; and finally, a new and useful relationship is discovered.

In this process the inventor may come upon an entirely unexpected relationship; the invention, or discovery, may be different from the one for which the long search is made. In studying an apparatus designed to repeat Morse characters, Mr. Edison was looking for possible ways of improving the instrument when his attention was attracted to peculiar humming noises. He perceived a resemblance of these sounds to the human voice—and caught a vision which led to an unanticipated invention, the phonograph. Daguerre left an underexposed plate in a cupboard and later found that it was developed. He could not understand the cause. In the cupboard, however, he found a capsule of mercury, a metal which discharges steam at ordinary temperature. He experimented with underexposed plates and mercury—the result was the daguerreotype.

Problem-solving is fundamental to all invention and discovery. A desire, a need, a problem; concentration of attention upon the problem; the trial and error method of experimentation; finally, the expected or the unanticipated discovery: such is invention. Hence it may be seen that the process is relatively simple and the possibilities of making useful inventions are open to almost any energetic mind.

It may be stated here that psychologically there is no essential difference between discovering and inventing. Consider the discovery of America: first, there was a problem, namely, to travel by direct route to India; then the brilliant idea that Europe was re-

(175) -lated or connected with India by the Western seas; then, the search, the long journey, the steadfast westward gaze, and the holding against tremendous odds to the westward course; finally, land, not India, but a new continent.

(6) Invention is produced by an inventive atmosphere. Invention is "catching." The spirit of invention spreads and inventive enthusiasm runs high. Nations experience inventive epochs. An age of fashion, as opposed to one of custom, represents inventive craze as well as imitative craze. Behind countless superficial, artificial fashions is the spirit of invention, and out of the process a few worthy inventions are produced.

About the year 1500 there was a group of land discoveries—discovering land became the fashion. Land discoveries flocked together. Since 1917 there has been a series of air-transportation inventions. One air-transportation invention or achievement stimulates countless individuals to greater efforts; thus new records in this field are continually being made.

The inventive atmosphere is partly created by social stimulation. A whole nation can pass into a social stupor, and individuals be put to sleep by social inertia, and live and die without being aware of needs which can be met by invention. Social satisfaction and stagnation kill inventiveness. On the other hand, social activity and recognition promote the inventive spirit.

Industry and business have eagerly sought the inventor of material processes, and consequently the inventions in these fields have overshadowed all

(176) others. Recognition in the realm of art in our country comes tardily, and creative art as a result has been held back.

(7) Invention is sometimes caused by necessity. "Necessity is the mother of invention." By virtue of circumstances Robinson Crusoe became an inventor. Many a phlegmatic and unimaginative person has found himself in situations where he was obliged to invent. Exhaustion of productive lands compelled experimentation in dry farming and irrigation. An ultimate scarcity of crude oils will force the invention of a substitute for gasoline as a source of power for driving automobiles, and then of a substitute for the gasoline engine.

(8) Invention is modification. Nearly all new ideas and appliances which reach the United States Patent Office are classified as improvements. In other words, an invention is usually a projection from a group of older inventions.

The invention of the steam engine was not made in its entirety in the year 1769 by James Watt, neither did it take place on the day that the attention of Watt was centered on the rising and falling lid of the tea-kettle. The invention of the steam engine goes back to the aelipile made by Hero of Alexandria in the second century, B. C., to a type of steam windmill that was worked out by G. Branca about 1629, to the steam apparatus which was manufactured by the Marquis of Worcester in 1663, to the application of steam power to various kinds of machines by Thomas Savery about 1700, to Papin's idea of the piston, to Newcomen's piston engine, a model of

(177) which Watt was repairing when in 1763 he set to work to eliminate the waste of steam due to alternate chilling and heating of the cylinder. With this problem in mind, Watt worked for six years before he had perfected the separate condenser in 1769, the date at which it is popularly said that the steam engine was invented. This invention, therefore, involved more than the observation of a tea-kettle; it included countless improvements that had been made by many persons throughout a long period of time.

The modifications which constitute inventions are of three classes: (a) natural evolutions, (b) transformations, and (c) marked deviations.[3] Qualitatively, this order represents an ascending scale. The difference is one of degree. As a result of the increasing difficulty which is involved, this schedule constitutes, numerically, a descending scale. (a) Inventions that are natural evolutions of previously discovered relationships are the easiest to make and the most common. To change a gourd into a receptacle for carrying water, to use a stone as a weapon, to make a cave into a cave-house, or to give a slant to perpendicular windshields—these are natural evolutions. They range from innumerable small changes, scarcely worthy to be called inventions, to transformations of materials.

(b) Some inventions are complex combinations of known relationships. The results are transformations of the constituent elements. To connect a bucket and a rope with a wheel for the purpose of

(178) drawing water from a well, to attach afoot lever to a spinning-wheel so as to change the immediate source of power and free the hand, or to put pneumatic tubes upon automobile wheels: these are transformations in ordinary usages.

(c) Marked deviations from current knowledge and skill are the highest forms which invention takes. They involve the recognition of relationships apparently unrelated. They range up into the most brilliant findings, conceptions, and creations of geniuses. The invention of the cipher, the discovery of fire, the application of steam to machinery, the making of an instrument for transmitting and reproducing human speech between points that are miles apart, the conception that the earth is round, the creation of a national epic: such are a few examples of marked deviations.

(9) Inventions are neutral. They may destroy or construct society. A new chemical combination can be used to human advantage or disadvantage. The invention of gunpowder, nitroglycerin, T N T may be made the servants or the destroyers of man. The printing press is an instrument for carrying the best socialized teachings of the New Testament around the world, or to disseminate morbid indecencies. An aeroplane may carry food to dying children or bombs to destroy children.

(10) Inventions are cyclical. An ordinary invention passes through a cycle of existence. Tarde has recognized three stages in such a cycle—an incline, a plateau, and a decline.[4] (a) The incline is often very

(179) sloping. Inventions are sometimes accepted with great reluctance and after long delays. The steam engine, traveling at the fearful rate of ten or fifteen miles an hour was long considered by many people a work of the devil. The automobile has received readier acceptance. The steepness of the incline of common adoption depends upon the nature and the number of the prejudices which must be vanquished and upon the mental speed and activity of the people. A book that is far ahead of the age in which it appears will likely remain unrecognized during the life-time of the author. Beethoven died almost unknown. Mendel's laws of heredity were not recognized until forty years after their discovery.

(b) The plateaux of an invention may be short or long, depending upon its usefulness and the mental activity of its environment. A "best seller" may remain such for only one month or it may continue such for twenty months. The bicycle enjoyed a shortlived popularity, because of the perfecting of the more serviceable automobile The sailing vessel enjoyed first place for centuries as a means of ocean transportation, until the steamboat demonstrated its greater utility.

(c) The decline may be abrupt or gradual. As a rule the decline is gently sloping, for an invention that is widely adopted acquires the sanction of custom and holds on with tenacity long after it has been superseded in serviceability by another invention. Inventions tend to become encased in the feelings, and to die slowly. Superstitions possess a long drawn out decline. Occasionally, however, an invention is made,

(180) such as a new machine or a new industrial process, and established machines and processes are discarded suddenly.

There are many inventions which live on—with no decline in sight, such as the ethical teachings in the New Testament, the metric system, printing, the idea that the earth is spherical. Others survive as parts of new and better inventions, such as the wheel—in the wheelbarrow, the wagon, the automobile, the watch.

(ii) Inventions are cumulative. Inventing leads to further inventing. Inventing may become habitual.

The succession of inventions is not entirely accidental. America could hardly have been discovered by Europeans through conscious plans until the idea had been conceived and accepted that the earth is round. The wagon could not have been invented before the wheel; the sailing vessel, before the boat; cooking processes, before the discovery of fire; the watch-spring, before steel. Therefore there is a logic of inventions as well as of events.

Inventions produce inventions. They are gregarious; they come in droves. Every valuable invention releases possibilities of further inventions. Inventions are not entirely sporadic, but follow one another in a rough sequence.

No invention is complete and final. Every invention presages others. An invention is a potential parent of generations of unborn inventions. The pressure upon the truly imaginative, thoughtful person to invent is strong. Persons are called to be creators and joint heirs with the Great Creator.


(12) Civilization is an invention. We live in a world of inventions. Through imitation, inventions are omnipresent. Every word in this book is the invention of some one. The chair in which you sit; the pictures upon the walls; the building which houses you; food, from the rolled oats or puffed wheat in the morning to the Neapolitan ice cream in the evening are inventions. In eating, your hands and mouth are busy with inventions. The automobile, the street, the office, the telephone, the alphabet, language —all is invention. We live and move and have our being in invention.

Civilization is a synthesis of inventions. How many invented processes are combined in the fountain pen or the typewriter with which I work. Consider the inventions in a baseball game. Who can disentangle and write the history of the inventions in the Constitution of the United States?

Everything and every idea bears the injunction: Let us invent. Educational systems have overworked imitation, but scarcely tapped the possibilities of encouraging invention. Individuality, initiative, concentration, invention, creation—this is the logic of invention.


1. Can you name anything that you daily use which is not an invention?

2. Why are so many of the persons who have made inventions unknown to us?


3. What psychic characteristics are essential in an inventor?

4. Explain: The time is ripe for an invention.

5. If it is natural to invent, why do we not invent more than we do?

6. Explain: : There are few persons who are qualified to use inventions.

7. Distinguish between invention and leadership.

8. Distinguish between copying and adopting the methods of others.

9. Can you name an invention which is not used both for and against the welfare of society?

10. If Edison had lived in Central Africa, what would have been the nature of his inventions?

11. What five inventions come first to your mind as the world's greatest inventions?

12. Describe the probable mental process which immediately preceded the invention of the bow and arrow.

13. Give from your observation an illustration of any one of the twelve phases of invention which are mentioned in this chapter.

14. What elements in the social psychology of invention can you name which this chapter does not mention ?


Baldwin, J. M., Social and Ethical Interpretations, Chs. III, IV.
——, The Individual and Society, Ch. V.

Knowlson, T. S., Originality.

Mach, E., "On the Part Played by Accident in Invention and Discovery," Monist, III: 161-75.

Mason, O. T., The Origins of Invention, Ch. I.

Paulhan, F., Psychologie de l'invention, livre II.

Tanner, Amy E., "Certain Social Aspects of Invention," Amer. Jour. of Psychol., 26: 388-416.

Tarde, Gabriel, La Logique Sociale, Ch. IV.
——, The Laws of Imitation,
Ch. V.

Taussig, F. W., Inventors and Money-Makers, Chs. I, II.

Todd, A. J., Theories of Social Progress, Ch. X.

Ward, L. F., Psychic Factors in Civilization, Chs. XXVII-XXXI.
——, Applied Sociology, Part II. Pure Sociology, Chs. XVIII, XIX.

Warren, W. P., "Edison on Invention and Inventors," Century, LXXXII : 05-ig.

Wissler, C., "Relation of Culture to Environment from the Standpoint of Invention," Popular Science Mon., LXXXIII 164-68.


  1. O. T. Mason, Origins of Invention, p. 28.
  2. J. M. Baldwin, The Individual and Society, p. 149.
  3. See the extended discussion of this theme by F. Paulhan, Psychologie de l'invention, livre II.
  4. The Laws of Imitation, pp. 126, 158, 174.

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