August's featured article

The Dreams Ideas Are Made Of

Alex Camarota : Office of Innovation Development

Ideas. They pop in and out of our minds a thousand times a day, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, one of them is good enough to launch an invention, a story, or a life-long pursuit.

But where do ideas come from in the first place? Inspiration seems to strike out of nowhere and during times when we least expect it or even think it is possible.

The Internet is brimming with stories about inventions and discoveries that appeared in dreams. Einstein is said to have begun contemplating the theory of relativity after dreaming about cows when he was a teenager. There’s also the story of Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, who got the idea for a needle with the eye at its tip after dreaming about an incident involving spear-wielding cannibals. The list of dream-born creations goes on and on, from the lyrics of famous songs to the molecular structures for common chemicals. Are these stories true? We’ll have to take the Internet’s word for it, but there’s no denying we can have ideas in our dreams, and for many inventors they can be a source of inspiration. In fact, Inventors Eye has featured more than one independent inventor who literally had dreams of invention.

Remember Spark of Genius Sandy Stein? She got the idea for the Finders Key Purse in a dream where her deceased father instructed her on how to create a device that helps women prevent their keys from becoming lost in the bottom of their handbags.

Inventors Eye’s most recent spark of genius, Kim Meckwood, also got the idea for her Click & Carry in a dream. She needed to solve the problem of carrying multiple bags of groceries up long flights of stairs to her apartment, and that’s exactly what she did. But for Kim, getting ideas while asleep is nothing new. She said dreaming is a way for her to process her thoughts and allow ideas to percolate and rise to the surface. As it turns out, this is also what some experts say dreaming is all about.

Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM), the period of sleep when the eyes erratically dart to and fro beneath the eyelids. REM sleep is also marked by increased brain activity. Various theories attempt to explain the purpose of dreaming and REM (none of which have a consensus in the scientific community). According to one, REM is the result of the brain processing and organizing the day’s thoughts, sights, and sounds. In this way, dreams might be a way for us to contemplate things that we are unable to or unwilling to contemplate during waking hours—or a way for us to finally grasp the solution to a problem that puzzled us.

Aside from the occasional dream, inventors get their ideas in many different ways. While stories of invention often start with a common problem that needs fixing, the way inventors arrive at the solution can be varied. Most solutions are the result of trial and error, thinking and perseverance—like the Wright Brothers’ flying machine. Others still are the result of mere accident—Post-It Notes and vulcanized rubber were stumbled upon while their inventors were pursuing a different angle. And then there is the proverbial light bulb moment, when inspiration feels so new and disruptive it seems almost miraculous. But there’s a rub: it turns out a lot of good ideas are really just additions to, or new directions taken from, already existing ideas.

One thing is clear: innovation happens in increments. Even during today’s rapid technological expansion, most new mindboggling creations are the result of teams of researchers and engineers analyzing previous devices and processes, and figuring out how to make them better. Even independent inventors solving everyday problems are adding their own ideas to ones that already exist. Invention does not occur in a vacuum.

This collaborative system of productivity is common today, but that wasn’t always the case. Ideas have not always had free reign to intermingle and bounce off each other. In fact, some experts, including notable science and technology writer Steven Johnson, credit the arrival of a truly collaborative “marketplace of ideas” to something that many of us take a warming to: coffee.

First appearing on the European continent in the mid-1600s, coffee houses quickly took hold as everyone from noblemen to street sweepers clamored in for a caffeine kick. The result, says Johnson, was that people from all walks of life began mingling and rubbing shoulders. Naturally, so did their ideas. Coffee houses were a gathering place to talk about every subject, from politics and philosophy to science and technology. The collaborative environment that sprung up in European coffee houses in the 17th century gave rise to what became known as the Enlightenment, itself leading to scientific and technological revolutions and even the modern patent system.

Just as most good ideas are not as isolated as they appear, the majority of patents do not detail entirely new inventions. Rather, they show novel improvements to existing technology. And while patents protect inventors’ exclusive rights to their inventions for a limited time, the U.S. patent system, as it is enshrined in our Constitution, is uniquely designed to “Promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.”

Every time an inventor receives a patent, he or she adds to the archive of mankind’s collective good ideas. Patents force new ideas to enter the marketplace and replace or improve the old. The state of the art advances, and the process repeats itself ad infinitum. You might even say that the patent system is the coffee house of intellectual property, where inventors and their inventions come together to mingle and learn and take new directions.

So go ahead: have another cup of Joe, but always remember to dream.

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.