Most of us know quite a bit about Benjamin Franklin’s contribution to the establishment of the United States of America. His role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the development of the US Constitution is well-documented. He was also the elder statesman in the early days of the republic. His contributions as an innovator or inventor are less known. He was the key player in the development of the United States Post Office. He worked with electricity and invented a more efficient stove, known as the Franklin stove. He also invented bifocals, a flexible urinary catheter and many, many other innovations.

His invention of bifocal was based on improving the work of others. However, the fact that most of his inventions were brand new ideas adds to his mystique as an innovator. To better explain, I should point out that there are basically two kinds of innovations. One is the innovation that comes as a result of careful follow-on to the work of others. This is often called deductive innovation. The other type of innovation occurs when a brand new idea is developed, one never really thought of before.

Now, here’s the interesting thing about Franklin. The realm of deductive innovators, those who add to the work of others, is often thought of as made-up of older people who have lots of life experience. New idea innovators are often assumed to be younger people who are not constrained by the limitations to their creative thinking that often come as we get older. If such a theory is correct, Benjamin Franklin didn’t fit the mold of the deductive innovation vs. new idea innovation age pattern. Most of his inventions were brand new ideas and came later in his life.

He definitely broke the mold in another area of innovation. While most innovators take careful pains to protect their rights to their innovations and want to be well-paid for their work, Franklin did neither. His attitude was based on his feeling that he had been blessed by the work of many others whose inventions helped his life, and he paid the innovator nothing for it. He concluded that he should give something back without getting paid for it. He made all of his inventions available to the public without seeking financial gain or patenting them. He wrote that “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

So, as you move forward in the process of innovations, you might think about innovating like Benjamin Franklin. Don’t let the limitations of age, education or circumstances put a constraint on your innovative imagination. And you might consider letting your innovation be your contribution to society, not only to your bank account. Many have done this and reaped great rewards.

This blog was originally posted Nov 26, 2012