Mark Champkins: The Science Museum's Inventor-in-Residence

By Humans Invent on at

Coming up with ideas and inventions on demand is tricky. I work as the Science Museum's "inventor-in-residence" and it is my job to generate a stream of products and ideas that are interesting to the science-savvy as well as engaging to those new to the museum. If possible the products should also be wildly popular and generate lots of income. No pressure then.

Without doubt, the museum provides a fertile space for generating ideas. My ideas generally tend toward the quirky but I reckon there is a great deal the museum can tell us about the conditions that led to the creation of something truly world-changing.


Cutting edge science

One of the most inspiring parts of the museum is the "Making of the Modern World" gallery. The gallery has a timeline engraved on the floor, and the exhibits are arranged chronologically, starting at the 1770′s in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution and progressing through to the Wellcome wing, at the back of the Museum, which showcases the most cutting edge science. Walking through the gallery is like walking through the recent history of human development. By presenting the objects in this way several trends become apparent.

Perhaps what is most striking is how many of the exhibits and innovations were generated by individuals or relatively small teams. In some senses, that's really quite inspiring for creatives who wish to make a difference in the world. That said, most of these "innovators" were very wealthy or well-supported individuals who spent most of their time working on their creations. This suggests something about the best conditions in which innovation flourishes. To come up with a world-changing product requires some degree of financial support or patronage, and time.

These days, this support comes either from working within a creative business that has the resources to develop your intellectual capital or from start-ups in the form of seed capital, tech incubators or local/government initiatives such as NESTA or the TSB. Having enough financial support or regular income to buy the time necessary to develop an idea and business model seems to be a precondition to doing something amazing.


Technological evolution

It is also striking how the inventions, as you progress through the Making of the Modern World Gallery, build upon one another. As Isaac Newton put it, "If I have seen further it's by standing on the shoulders of giants". Improving upon other people's ideas is an age-old method of driving innovation. Most of the exhibits demonstrate the evolution of a technology. Equally, many of the inventions in the gallery are the combination of two pre-existing though previously unrelated pieces of technology (often to be found in two separate locations you've already walked past in the gallery).

A little understanding of the context in which many of the artefacts were created also provides some interesting insights. Many of the most intensive periods of innovation were fuelled by competition. For example, at the start of the gallery the Harrison Clock, which allowed navigators to keep accurate time on board a ship enabling the mapping of new continents, was devised by a previously unknown carpenter and amateur clockmaker in response to a prize fund of £20,000 established by the British government.

Many of the most intensive periods of innovation were fuelled by competition
Equally, the Apollo 10 capsule toward the end of the gallery is testament to the competition of the Cold War in which the US and USSR strove to demonstrate their technical superiority. The X-Prize and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering are more contemporary examples of competitions that are driving innovation.


Prince Albert's vision

One final observation I'd make, comes from overhearing the comments of visitors to the gallery. It emphasises the accelerating pace of innovation, and how quickly one generation becomes unfamiliar with the technology used by the last. I've noticed that it's not unusual for school children to be unable to identify any telephone designed before 1970 as actually being a telephone, and one afternoon as I passed a visiting primary school class, I heard a teacher describing a typewriter as "a computer that prints as you type".

The development of technology has reached an unprecedented pace, and I suspect staying familiar with as much of it as possible (both past and present) is important in being able to build upon it and generate something new.

When Kensington Gore was redeveloped after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Science Museum was very deliberately located next to Imperial College, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal College of Music. Prince Albert had the vision that the Museums would provide inspiration to students seeking to develop their ideas. He thought we might build a bright future, by drawing upon what has gone before. I reckon he was a clever fella.

So, if you are in search of new ideas, why not make like Prince Albert, and treat yourself to a trip to the Science Museum. You never know what you might come up with.

 Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.