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What’s the difference between invention and innovation?  Hiram Maxim knows.
by H. Randall Goldsmith, Ph.D.

Your life-long dream of being a contestant on the “Jeopardy” quiz show is finally a reality. The contest is close and you select “Technology for $100.” Host Alex Trebek reads the statement: “He was the first person to file a patent on the light bulb on October 5, 1878?” You answer with a knowing smile, “Who was Thomas Alva Edison!” Buzz. Wrong. Alex says, “The correct answer is Hiram Maxim.” Hmmm?

It is your turn again. You select “Technology for $200.” Alex reads the statement, “The first person to fly an airplane.” Again, you answer with a knowing smile, “Who were the Wright brothers!” Buzz. Wrong.  “The correct answer is Hiram Maxim,” Alex says again. Hmmm?

It is your turn again: “Technology for $300.” “This inventor’s machine guns were mounted on World War I British airplanes.” Not having a clue, you think for a moment and answer, “Hiram Maxim.” Alex exclaims, “Correct for $300! You are the new winner!”

Oh well, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart.

When you get home, you decide to check out this fellow Hiram Maxim. You discover in Invention & Technology’s Great Inventions That Changed the World that Hiram was a remarkable inventor. He filed his patent on the light bulb one day before Edison. Unfortunately for Hiram, Edison received the patent. Perhaps it was because Edison enjoyed a certain amount of name recognition with the patent office after receiving 1,093 patents – still a record. In spite of not getting the patent, it did not stop Hiram Maxim from creating his own electric utility company, U.S. Electric Lighting Company — eventually taken over by Westinghouse.

Maxim moved to Europe to pursue new opportunities and achieved no small acclaim when he applied the steam engine principles he learned as a boy in Maine to a new endeavor – the machine gun. His 1880 prototype based on the concept of a two-stroke engine was powered by its recoil, fed by a cartridge belt, water-cooled and fired 600 rounds a minute.

In addition, he invented a smokeless powder by combining nitroglycerin and guncotton to overcome the strategic disadvantages created by battlefield smoke. Queen Victoria knighted him in appreciation for the gun’s performance in British combat engagements.

Perhaps the most remarkable of Hiram Maxim’s accomplishments was his airplane. After three years of work, Hiram built a state of the art, lightweight steam engines that generated 150 horsepower and sat in the middle of the plane. The biplane was 126 feet long, had a wingspan of 104 feet and a height of 36 feet. The craft weighed more than 7,000 pounds, but it flew! In the summer of 1894, Hiram and two passengers flew the plane a distance of 600 feet at an altitude just a few feet off the ground before it crashed. The date was July 31, 1894, a decade before the Wright Brothers’ accomplishment at Kitty Hawk.

I enjoy sharing this story of my favorite inventor and innovator.  Creative people like Hiram Maxim are fascinating.  Their minds work differently than most folks’.  When everyone else sees a situation from one perspective, they seem to see if from a different one.  While many see problems in every opportunity, they see opportunity in every problem.  I suppose we will never know whether their creativity comes from neurological circuitry or metaphysical ether.  In either case, I wish I had just a small dose of it.

In Hiram’s case, as with Edison, Milton Hershey, Chester Carlson and Eli Whitney, success came from more than just creativity.  They put creativity to work.  That’s the difference between invention and innovation.  Invention remains in the mind or reduced to writing.  Innovation flies, it shoots, it brings light.  Innovation puts to use all the man made things of our world.  The result of innovation is human progress.  If we were simply satisfied with invention, we would have a lot of think tanks instead of factories.

Innovation is the fundamental foundation for economic growth and development.  Take away local ability, capacity and incentive to continually innovate, and you, your company or your community begin to slip down the slope of obsolescence.  Notice I said local.  The financial and economic benefits have the greatest effect on the place where innovation happens.   When it happens close by, it serves as a constant reminder that it is innovation that got us to where we are, and innovation that will take us into the future.