Innovation In The 1990's
By Jack Dougherty

I have just read a short article in the November issue of the Welding Journal.  The article was in the "Point Of View" section and it was written by Professor John McClure Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Dept. University of Texas El Paso.

The title was "Where Have All the Breakthroughs gone?" The author compares the inventions of the last 200 years, ending in the 1950's to the last half of this century. While it is true that the prior period brought to the world wonderful products, he is telling the reader that, everything has been invented.  Now the only thing left to do for the engineer and the inventor is "to make incremental improvements".  Many valid points are made but one of the major reasons the author fails to state, for the slowdown in great new innovative products, is because of product liability.

What if Thomas Edison had been born in the mid part of the Twentieth Century and the world had not yet developed the commercial use of electricity.  What would be the reaction of the American Public to electric wires running up and down every street and highway?  Would we have lawyers tripping over themselves trying to find an injured person and when they do running off at near light speed to file suit?

Just imagine, if no one had invented the automobile until the late 1990's or jet aircraft.  The chance of getting roads or airports built today would be all but impossible let alone getting approval to operate such polluting and noisy equipment.  In today’s litigious environment, think about the first person to be injured or killed in one of these conveyances.  There would likely be a national movement to ban all automobiles and airplanes lead by Al and Tipper Gore.

Without a track record to support the usefulness of such products and with the prospect of litigation eating up any foreseeable profit, both the airplane and the automobile would likely fade from the scene.  In view of how these things are such a part of our lives today it is difficult to see how this could happen, but remember when these products were new many fought against them.  Those who fought, were not successful because they did not have a PAC fund to influence politicians who must spend most of their time fund raising instead of doing the job they were elected to do. In addition they did not have news media so hungry for a headline or lead story on the evening news that they take an accident and turn it into a circus.  Today, a defect or faulty design is usually reported as if some money-grabbing corporation did it for some sinister reason. Although, this is sometimes the case.

We have people who build or buy homes adjacent to highways and airports and then complain about the noise. We have people who smoke (and I was a smoker) and then want the cigarette industry to be responsible for something they chose to do.  The cigarette industry may have not wanted the public to know just how harmful their product was, but when I started to smoke almost 50 years ago I knew that cigarettes made people cough.  We were also told that we would stunt our growth if we smoked. Old Gold cigarettes promoted their smokes using the slogan "not a cough in a carload', The implication being that other brands made you cough.

Today small companies do not bring new products, with any risk factor, to market because they cannot afford the liability.  Large companies are also reluctant to be innovative. They can easily become the target of someone who is aware that the company or their insurers would rather settle than go to court.  I think the American public would be astounded to learn the true cost of product liability in everything we buy from food to automobiles to our homes.  I know of professional men who have closed their businesses because of the high cost of liability insurance.

The States and the Federal Government are passing regulations to protect us from our own stupidity.  The law requiring seat belts in motor vehicles is reasonable, but to have laws requiring their use for adults is going beyond. Laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets is also overstepping.  We all should know that these items save lives and we should be actively promoting their use.  The person who is not bright enough to use such safety devices are not likely to do so because a law is passed.  We are trying to protect the American public from the cradle to the grave while using a standard set for the least intelligent, most careless and sometimes those acting in a criminal manner.  To illustrate my point, a few years ago somewhere in New Jersey a man climbed to the roof of a school building with the intent of breaking into the building through a skylight.  The would be thief fell through the skylight was injured, he sued and won.  It did not matter that this thief was trespassing while attempting to commit a felony.  Last night the CBS News show 60 Minutes ran a story about a man who murdered several persons.  He apparently sued his psychiatrist because the doctor did not insist that he keep taking his medication after the doctor retired.  A jury of his peers, with diminished mental capacity it would seem, awarded this murderer five hundred thousand dollars and held his doctor, who had only seen the man six times or so, responsible.  Liability is forced upon us in the most unpredictable and unfair ways.

The author’s position brings to mind Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Patents in 1899.  He suggested that there was no more need for the Patent Office because "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

Innovative products in deep foundation construction for the past twenty years or more have mostly come from Europe and Asia.  The U.S. marketplace wants proven, low risk technology.  Few engineers want to risk their license and livelihood on unproven products.

The author also suggests that personal aircraft and jet backpacks, touted by the futurists in the early part of the century, did not make it simply because they could not be produced at acceptably low prices.  As for the private aircraft industry, it is alive and well.  But the airplane in every garage idea  was always a bad idea.  Can you imagine all the incompetent drivers on the roads today?  The person who cannot keep their vehicle in one lane when the lanes are marked with lines.  Suddenly all of these people would be flying airplanes.  At least they could not slam on their breaks for no apparent reason.  The high cost of aircraft, I suspect, has to do with the cost of product liability.

As for personal jet packs, the mental image of rush hour in New York City and everyone lifting off in different directions at 5:00 p.m. is enough to put that idea to rest.

The U.S.A. has more than its share of bright inventive people, but those who might select engineering as a vocation are turning to more lucrative endeavors such as computers and law.

If we in the U.S.A. can no longer bring new products to market, where will new technology come from?  Most likely from a country such as China, that appears determined to modernize.  A country that has fewer lawyers in their entire vast nation than we have in one building in New York City, is a likely candidate to replace the U.S. as the world leader in new innovative major technology.  China has many fine engineers.  They have a large labor pool from which to draw.  They also are building infrastructure.  At some point some Chinese engineers will turn their talents toward new ideas and new technology.

We in the U.S., unless we change our ways, will bury ourselves in regulations and litigation.  One Chinese official told me some years ago that the U.S. had seven percent of the world’s population and seventy percent of its lawyers.  You will find it difficult to find someone with college age children in this country, who does not have someone in law school.

© Copyright 1998 Pileline Publishing