To invent is to see anew. Inventors often envision a new idea, seeing it in their mind's eye. New ideas can arise when the conscious mind turns away from the subject or problem, when the inventor's focus is on something else, or while relaxing or sleeping. A novel idea may come in a flash-a Eureka! moment. For example, after years of working to figure out the general theory of relativity, the solution came to Einstein suddenly in a dream "like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision". Inventions can also be accidental, such as in the case of polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon).
Insight is also a vital element of invention. It may begin with questions, doubt or a hunch. It may begin by recognizing that something unusual or accidental may be useful or that it could open a new avenue for exploration. For example, the odd metallic color of plastic made by accidentally adding a thousand times too much catalyst led scientists to explore its metal-like properties, inventing electrically conductive plastic and light emitting plastic--an invention that won the Nobel Prize in 2000 and has led to innovative lighting, display screens, wallpaper and much more (see conductive polymer, and organic light-emitting diode or OLED).
Invention is often an exploratory process, with an uncertain or unknown outcome. There are failures as well as successes. Inspiration can start the process, but no matter how complete the initial idea, inventions typically have to be developed. Inventors are often famous for their confidence, their perseverance and their passion. Ideas for inventions may be developed on paper or on a computer, by writing or drawing, by trial and error, by making models, by experimenting, by testing and/or by making the invention in its whole form. Brainstorming also can spark new ideas for an invention. Collaborative creative processes are frequently used by designers, architects and scientists. Co-inventors are frequently named on patents. Now it is easier than ever for people in different locations to collaborate. Many inventors keep records of their working process - notebooks, photos, etc., including Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.
In the process of developing an invention, the initial idea may change. The invention may become simpler, more practical, it may expand, or it may even morph into something totally different. Working on one invention can lead a number of new inventions. There is only one country in the world that will grant patent rights for an invention that continues part of an invention in a previously filed patent-the United States.
The creation of an invention and its use can be affected by practical considerations. Visionary inventors commonly collaborate with technical experts, manufacturers, investors and/or business people to turn an invention from idea into reality, and possibly even to turn invention into innovation. Nevertheless, there are inventions that are too expensive to produce and inventions that require scientific advancements that have not yet occurred. These barriers can erode or disappear as the economic situation changes or as science develops. But history shows that turning the idea of an invention into reality is not always a swift or a direct process, even for terrific inventions. It took centuries for some of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions to become reality.
Inventions may also become more useful after time passes and other changes occur. For example, the parachute became more useful once powered flight was a reality. Some invention ideas that have never been made in reality can obtain patent protection. An invention can serve many purposes. These purposes might differ significantly and they may change over time. An invention, or a further-developed version of it, may serve purposes never envisioned by its original inventor(s) or even by others living at the time of its original invention. As an example, consider all the kinds of plastic developed, their innumerable uses, and the tremendous growth this material invention is still undergoing today.
Inventions get out into the world in different ways. Some are sold, licensed or given away as products or services. Simply exhibiting visual art, playing music or having a performance gets many artistic inventions out into the world. Believing in the success of an invention can involve risk, so it can be difficult to obtain support and funding. Grants, inventor associations, clubs and business incubators can provide the mentoring, skills and resources some inventors need. Success at getting an invention out into the world often requires passion for it and good entrepreneurial skills. In economic theory, inventions are one of the chief examples of "positive externalities", a beneficial side-effect that falls on those outside a transaction or activity. One of the central concepts of economics is that externalities should be internalized-unless some of the benefits of this positive externality can be captured by the parties, the parties will be under-rewarded for their inventions, and systematic under-rewarding will lead to under-investment in activities that lead to inventions. The patent system captures those positive externalities for the inventor or other patent owner, so that the economy as a whole will invest a more closely optimum amount of resources in the process of invention.