Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Invention of the Day: Hypodermic Syringe

I'm reading a wonderful book by Roger Bridman - 1,000 Inventions and Discoveries. It documents an incredible range of human ingenuity from thousands years ago to our days. For example, here's an invention that we take for granted today: hypodermic syringe.

Remarkably, it was invented by two people in different countries. As the book says, "[in 1853] In Scotland, physician Alexander Wood invented the hollow needle and adapted Pravaz’s device to go with it, forming the first hypodermic syringe." That is, the invention cannot be attributed to each of them separately because a new system — the syringe — provides functionality beyond the sum of its parts. A well-defined interface between the parts, the cylinder and the needle respectively, enabled rapid innovation in manufacturing technologies and use. For example, here's how hollow needles are produced today.

From an innovation timing perspective, we need to be aware that the business success of the new injection technology was determined by a major invention that came about much later.
By the late 1800s hypodermic syringes were widely available, though there were few injectable drugs (less than 2% of drugs in 1905). Insulin was discovered in 1921. This drug had to be injected into the bloodstream, so it created a new market for manufacturers of hypodermic needles and drugs.

Overall, the invention of the hypodermic syringe illustrates a number of important principles for pragmatic creativity:
- a new combination of parts has to produce a new system effect;
- no new science is necessary for making a technology breakthrough;
- a well-defined interface between parts enables rapid innovation on both sides, e.g. the cylinder and the needle;
- the success of the invention comes from a new use, which may require a new science, e.g. liquid penicillin;
- the combination of new parts (cylinder + needle) and use (liquid drug) form Dominant Design and Use patterns that remain stable for decades, if not centuries.

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