In the 1840s, Samuel Colt used the US patent system to overcome the dilemma:
When Samuel Colt, of revolver fame, was trying to sell the U.S. government a system of naval mines, he had to establish that his device was original without giving away its secret. His imaginative solution was to submit the plan to the Patent Office, obtain a confirmation of its originality, and then withdraw the application before the patent was granted, thereby avoiding the publication of the patent specifications.*The Colt's approach exemplifies a powerful problem-solving technique often called "Separation in Time." According to the principle:
- you perform the useful action first — in the Colt's case: explaining the invention via a patent application — at the time when your potential customer needs to be convinced;
- then you perform a reverse action — withdraw the patent application — at a different time, so that the competition doesn't learn about the idea.
Snapchat provides the most recent example of a successful application of the "Separation in Time" principle along the lines of Samuel Colt's solution. That is, a Snapchat picture or a post is published for a short period of time to a limited group of subscribers; then, the post disappears, so that the information doesn't leak out to the general public. Clearly, the technique can be used for a broad variety of "limited offers."
* Source: Alex Roland, "Secrecy, Technology, and War: Greek Fire and the Defense of Byzantium, 678-1204." 1992.
tags: dilemma, problem, solution, social, separation