Back in 1887, Thomas Edison and his crew in West Orange, New Jersey, invented one of the first ways to view a motion picture: a kinetoscope.
It was like a super early version of the film projector. A string of photographs would flash across a peephole, where folks could view a moving image.
As National Geographic notes, Edison was tipped to the idea from the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge made images like the below gif, which clued Edison to the fact that motion could be conveyed through a series of photos.
After seeing this, Edison — who’d already made recorded history with the phonograph — decided he needed to get into the motion picture game. The inventor wrote:
“I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording a reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap, practical and convenient.”
We can learn a couple of things from Edison’s analogizing.
First, cognitive scientists have confirmed that it’s easier to learn new things when you already have an extensive base of knowledge. Second, the bridge that allows us to come up with new ideas is usually an analogy: a way of looking at two things in your memory or in the world and seeing the similarity in their underlying structures.
Analogy may be the best way to brainstorm new ideas — and it’s a ridiculously old technique. Frequently, the “answer” to a new question exists in a solution somewhere out there in the world. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.
Nat Geo tips us to the first recorded invention by analogy. Some 2000 years ago, the Roman architect-engineer Vitruvius used an analogy to figure out how to build an excellent theatre.
“As in the case of the waves formed in the water, so it is in the case of the voice,” the architect wrote. “The first wave, when there is no obstruction to interrupt it, does not break up the second or the following waves, but they all reach the ears of the lowest and highest spectators without an echo.”
Analogy helped Johannes Kepler untangle the laws of planetary motion. The German astronomer thought that gravity — though it didn’t have a name yet — could act like light. Just like light could move from the sun to the planets, a force could keep them in orbit.
Modern-day office folk can employ analogies, too.
How to analogize your way to better ideas
In a new paper, University of Pittsburgh researchers Joel Chan and Christian Schunn tracked the brainstorming sessions of a design firm trying to make a handheld printer for kids. The designers made new analogies every five minutes. Those analogies allowed the designers to incrementally improve on each other’s conceptions.
Let’s look at the transcript. In this particular selection, they’re trying to figure out how to cover the printer head so it doesn’t get destroyed by kids when it’s not in use. Notice the progression of the idea, analogy by analogy:
Incrementally, the idea shifts, recomposes, and evolves. The solution is first like a video tape, then a garage door, and then a rolling garage door.
You can get a feeling of what’s going on in the designers’ minds: They’re looking for a new solution to an old problem, how to protect this valuable thing when it’s not in use. So they fire off ideas of other types of protectors in a rapid evolution.
In 10 seconds, analogies help the idea to evolve.
So remember this the next time you’re trying to dream up an answer: Look for other “solutions” that already exist out there in the world, and see if they might fit your question, just like Edison, Vitruvius, and Kepler.
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