Are There Any Original Ideas?

Inventor-worship may be missing the mark

“All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” — Mark Twain, 1903

Americans love inventors. We tend to give them a lot of credit, elevating them to a pantheon of industrialism for all to worship. Ford. Edison. Jobs. These are the names that changed the face of the earth.

The concept of invention seems baked into our history: early settlers, arriving on America’s shores, had to make due with what they could bring with them. Everything else was created from the fruits of their labor in their new land.

If you’re a child of the Seventies or Eighties, you’ll be familiar with the Schoolhouse Rock refrain:

"Mother Necessity, with her good intentions;
Where would this country be, without her inventions?"

As the country expanded and technology flourished, the Industrial Revolution gave inventive citizens an opportunity to develop new solutions to tackle the harsh realities of labor. And ingenuity flourished.

But it wasn’t all pluck and intelligence. Any honest inventor will tell you that ideas are inspired by other sources. We are the recipients of the hard work of generations before us.

“Read it up—you really should. There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887

We wouldn’t have landed on the moon without Pythagoras.

We couldn’t benefit from heart transplants without Galen or Leonardo da Vinci.

For those who have studied history or the progenitors of their own field, the resultant accumulated knowledge gives us a head start.

It’s a theme that is reflected in my friend Mark Schaefer’s latest book, Cumulative Advantage (A bonus book recommendation for you this week.). Mark recognizes that we don’t all come from the same background and that there are those who gain an advantage because of the cumulative effects of circumstances in their lives.


Historic achievements

Even those we think we know from history who set the country in a certain direction were not immune from borrowing their ideas from elsewhere.

Eli Whitney gets credit for inventing the cotton gin in 1793, but handheld roller gins had been used in India since at earliest 500, and the Indian worm-gear roller gin was invented sometime around the 16th century. Eli Whitney simply mechanized it.

His contribution was a tweak to an existing invention that allowed it to accommodate the scale that American cotton farmers required.


Henry Ford is sometimes misidentified as the inventor of the automobile. The car had been around for some 15 years before he established Ford Motor Company. But his goal with his 1908 Model T was to make it affordable to all. And to do that, he needed to be able to produce them more efficiently.

And so five years later he introduced the concept of the moving assembly line to the automotive world. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to one hour and 33 minutes. For it was an innovation, not an invention.

Upon visiting the meatpacking yards in Chicago and the textile industry in Cincinnati, he saw how the work moved to the workers and how machinery was involved. He took those disparate ideas and wove them together to create the first moving assembly line for cars. And by 1920, half of all of the cars in the world were Fords.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his classic essay “Self Reliance,” encouraged his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations. This is where the phrase “consistency is the foolish hobgoblins of little minds” originated.

But your instincts have been honed over time, due to the experiences you’ve had and the material with which you’ve educated yourself. It is impossible to believe that you haven’t been influenced by other ideas along the way.

And as you can see from the examples above, there’s nothing wrong with building on the ideas of others. That’s what humans (and animals) have done since the beginning of time. Each step in life is an improvement on the last.

Showing your inspiration weakens neither your idea nor your character. If anything, it does the opposite.

It shows your willingness to collaborate, your ability to be inspired, and your eagerness to help others along.



“Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us, to move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.” — Aaron Sorkin, 2001 (The West Wing, S3 E6)


Facebook may be introducing music charts into the platform, according to a patent filing. Part of the invention will be used to determine how many times a song is used in creating a video, which naturally leads to a comparison to TikTok. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)



TikTok’s success hasn't been ignored by other platforms. Spotify has been experimenting with user-generated videos. (Musically)



Tired of setting a kitchen timer or asking your smart speakers to run a time? Barilla has developed playlists on Spotify that run for exactly as long as you should cook your pasta. (AdWeek)



“We are all part of a larger stream of events. We are all the beneficiaries of those who have gone before us.” — David McCullough, 1998


The Jazz singer’s mind shows how to improvise through life itself. Jazz singers know how to take command of the present moment creatively, intuitively and joyfully. What can we learn from them? (Psyche)



The enchanted terms in which F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed modern America still blind us to how scathingly he judged it. F. Scott Fitzgerald as an oracle for the Jazz Age — that age of improvisation. (The New York Review of Books)



Fountain pens were a stylish statement but messy and impractical. Their replacement was a stroke of design genius perfectly in time for the era of mass production. (BBC)


Recommended Listening / Reading

“The human voice on a well-tempered string of words is the joyful noise of mortal man adrift and at play in the chains of the immortal sea.” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2017

🎧 Inventors Helping Inventors is a podcast for inventors and innovators with weekly interviews with successful inventors. Hear the questions other inventors want answered and discover the tools, tips, and tactics expert inventors use to achieve success.

📖 The rules for leadership and teamwork have changed, and the skills that got professionals ahead a generation ago don’t work anymore. Now The Second City provides a new toolkit individuals and organizations can use to thrive in a world increasingly shaped by speed, social communication, and decentralization. Based on eight principles of improvisation, Yes, And helps to develop these skills and foster them in high-potential leaders and their teams

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate link.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.

Are you enjoying the newsletter? If so, please tell someone about Timeless & Timely.

Share Timeless & Timely