Innovation Is Combination

Transforming Alchemy Into Chemistry

Everybody knows the story of Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite, but few have ever heard of John Dalton and his law of multiple proportions. What Dalton noticed was that if you combine two or more elements, the weight resulting compound will be proportional to its components. That may seem vague, but it did more for electricity than Franklin ever did.

Merging Man and Machine

In the early 1960s, IBM made what was perhaps the biggest gamble in corporate history. Although it was already the clear leader in the computer industry, it invested $5 billion — in 1960 dollars, worth more than $30 billion today — on a new line of computers, the 360 series, which would make all of its existing products obsolete.

Learning The Language of Life

Much like Dalton came up with the fundamental unit of chemistry, a century later Wilhelm Johannsen developed the fundamental unit of biology in 1909: the gene. This too was a combination — and also a refinement — of earlier ideas from men like Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others.

A New Era of Innovation

The confusion about innovation and invention reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how innovation really works. The idea that certain ideas are flashes of divine inspiration while others are merely riffs off of earlier tunes sung long ago fails to recognize that all innovations are combinations.



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Greg Satell

Greg Satell

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.