Innovative Lives

So you want to be an inventor?

So you want to be an inventor?
Chuck Hoberman "If you really want to be an inventor, you have to be a little obsessed. You have to really work hard to do it," warns Chuck. But the hard work is worth it: you may see your dreams come true.

At first, Chuck suggests, "you really want to use your imagination. You want to just think of crazy ideas. And, when you have crazy ideas, when you look at something and think, 'that could be done in a different way,' or, 'I could make something that would be a better way of skateboarding or a new kind of game' or anything, don't think that it is a stupid idea. Believe that maybe it's an interesting idea, and write it down, and draw things, and just start to use your imagination." He remembers that his first solutions to problems like how to make things move or shrink were crazy, like Rube Goldberg inventions. Chuck believes the trick is to think of as many ideas as you can. The more you think creatively, the better you will be at thinking of solutions to problems, says Chuck.

Chuck explains the process he goes through. First, he has an idea. If the idea is intriguing, he will play around with simple materials, like paper or plastic, and refine his idea, maybe building a simple prototype. Then, he starts working on the computer, using a CAD program to figure out the precise design of the object. He tests and changes and tests and changes his idea and the prototype. If this object is something that might be sold in stores, Caroline Hoberman, Chuck's wife gets involved. Caroline runs their business and is in charge of finding a factory to make the object, hiring salespeople, and setting a price. Meanwhile, Chuck's friends and employees help him with detailed drawings and any complicated construction. And, there is also the potentially time- and money-consuming patent process to go through, too. It can take years from the time Chuck has the inkling of an idea to the time his creation is on the shelves of a store.

Different skills are needed for different aspects of invention. Good reading and writing skills will help you convince people your ideas are good, as will being able to sketch or build models of your ideas. Knowing how to solve a problem is important, too, whether it is an artistic or a scientific problem. And, as Chuck and Caroline Hoberman discovered, running a business means learning new skills.

Keep your mind open to combining those of your interests that may seem unconnected, just as Chuck combined art and engineering. "Inventing is not just making inventions. It's a way of putting together the elements of your life to make a kind of career that no one's done before." As his life testifies, "new things arrive out of unexpected combinations of other things." Finally, "if you don't mind working hard," claims Chuck, then, eventually, you will get to do what you want.

All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 5 February 1999.

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