Somewhere during the last 100 years or so, we have lost something critical — something that funded and inspired the inventions that propelled us into modernism and delivered luxuries we now take for granted. Somehow we lost the urge to innovate. I am not sure if it was an individual dimming of passion or the lack of an environment to foster innovation, but I am sure it vanished.

The June 5, 2010, issue of TIME magazine recounted the impact of Thomas Edison’s idea factory and his relevance today. Edison’s approach to ideas and results — “a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so” — would be implausible if it wasn’t true. Inspired by the January 3, 1888 entry in Edison’s idea book, which outlined his “things doing and to be done,” I took a look at how our technology has empowered a more modern take on the global to-do list. Edison’s list was filled with projects ranging from ink for the blind, to the cotton picker, to a battery for the phone — a design that remained in use until just a few years ago.

Edison’s “things doing and to be done” list.

Unfortunately, the past few decades haven’t produced Edison-like innovation or impact in technology, and as a result, we are in a critical situation. You only have to look at the Engineering Grand Challenges outlined by the National Academy of Engineering to comprehend the gravity of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. From nuclear terror prevention to providing access to clean water and developing carbon sequestration methods, the global needs are vast. To deliver on these needs the way Edison delivered on telecommunication advances, the inventors of today — engineers and scientists around the globe — must nurture and embrace the charter in front of us to make a difference. Manufacturers must cultivate an environment of innovation to ensure a competitive edge. We must shift our focus back to innovation and invention.

NI customers’ “things doing and to be done” list.

National Instruments is doing our part. By providing the very latest advances in software system design tools and hardware capabilities for test and design, our customers are developing sustainable solutions to some of the toughest engineering challenges we’re faced with today. The list of things our customers are doing is impressive, from using our embedded NI CompactRIO platform and LabVIEW software for hydraulic fracking, automatic pipeline leak detection, designing zero footprint ATE systems, and creating deployed smart grid analyzers. It provides hope for our future in a tangible way. Our approach to empowering domain experts with the right tools for the job dramatically increases the odds that many truly “big things” will be accomplished. In fact, I believe Edison would be proud of your “things doing and to be done” list.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the November, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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