Utility is a Success
Inventors come to a product development and management (PDM) company because they
want to make their idea a reality. Their goal is to draw on the PDM’s resources to
commercialize the invention and bring it to the market. Thomas Edison, one of the world’s
most prolific inventors, had this goal as well. He used the term “utility” for what is known
today as commercialization. “Anything that won’t sell,” Edison said, “I don’t want to invent.
Its sale is proof of utility and utility is success.”
Like Edison, the inventors who transformed the American economy dedicated themselves to
making real products needed by thousands of people. Charles Goodyear, for example, was
determined to develop rubber to help prevent the all-too-frequent drowning of sailors. He
believed that life jackets made of rubber fabric would be better than the clumsy cork vests
used in the 1830s, and he envisioned inflatable life rafts made of rubberized canvas.
Goodyear’s discovery of the vulcanization process enabled manufacturers to work with
different forms of latex (then called “gum elastic”) that did not become rigid in the cold of
winter and sticky in the heat of summer. Many years after this inventor’s death, Frank
Seiberling used Goodyear’s name for the tire company he founded in Akron, Ohio.
Edwin Land’s invention, the instant camera, did not arise from the type of life-or-death
problem that haunted Charles Goodyear. Instead, Land was inspired by a request from his
three-year-old daughter, Jennifer. On a family vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Land took
a photo of her with his Rolleiflex camera. Jennifer couldn’t understand why she had to wait
to see her photograph. Later that day, Land took a long walk by himself and said he had
formulated the answer by the time he returned “except for those details that took from 1943
to 1972.” In 1948, the first salable instant cameras were all purchased within hours. By
1965, Land’s company had sold four million instant cameras. As it turned out, millions of
people were just like his daughter, Jennifer, and bought a Polaroid camera so that they could
see their photos without delay.
Today, medical practice often employs another type of image – showing the chemical
composition of the human body. Yet Dr. Raymond Damadian invented magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) only over the strong opposition of eminent scientists and academics, who
were sure he was a “crackpot and a charlatan.” Damadian persisted in developing his ideas,
however, because he wanted to find a cure for cancer, which had taken the life of his
grandmother. Cancer cells differ from healthy cells in their chemistry, but until Davidian’s
MRI came into use, the only way to identify them had been to look at them through a
microscope and recognize their shape. Once he found that MRI could detect cancer cells,
Damadian tried to get funding to build a machine big enough to scan an entire human
being, not just a small sample of cells. For this, he said, he was called “a screaming lunatic.”
His academic funding was reduced, and the National Cancer Institute refused any support.
Scrounging for money, friends and family begged for dollars wherever they could.
The scanner Damadian finally built, which demonstrated the ability to detect cancer in the
human body, is now in the Smithsonian Museum.
Through all their struggles, these inventors had a strong focus on their goal, and, in most
cases, a group of helpers or a team to support them. To meet the demands of the U.S.
economy in the twenty-first century, inventors can call on the resources available to them
through a PDM company. Successful commercialization means problems solved and desires
met, multiplied thousands of times.
Vall Iliev is the president and CEO of Vallmar CO., Stow, Ohio, www.vallmar.com, a
product development and management company founded in 1984. Vallmar works with
inventors to design, plan, develop, and validate ideas so they may be patented and brought to
market. Vallmar clients range from individual inventors to large manufacturers and
[Quotes and information for this article from Harold Evans, They Made America. Little