Invented a world-beating internal combustion engine? Actually no, you haven’t

I’ve just read an appeal from an inventor looking for help to develop his truly revolutionary internal combustion engine.

He is doomed.

I don’t want to embarrass him so will be light on detail. I strongly suspect he’s designed a perpetual motion machine, but that’s beside the point. My reason for writing about him is that he typifies a certain kind of inventor who thinks his invention is a game-changer but has no understanding of what he’s up against. Common sense has taken a long walk.

Internal combustion engines fascinate inventors. It’s a technology field where men in sheds still genuinely believe they’ve thought of an inventive step that has eluded thousands of career engine designers worldwide. Designers backed, moreover, by multi-million dollar R&D budgets, decades of experience and vast manufacturing and testing resources.

Back to our particular inventor. He has a patent, of which he is clearly proud. It will almost certainly be commercially useless, because it will be ignored by anyone who can actually make engines. That’s not me wishing him ill, it’s cold reality.

He doesn’t yet have a prototype. That’s doubly unfortunate. First, no one will take his extravagant claims for his engine seriously if he can’t even prove them to himself, let alone demonstrate them to others. Second, it makes his patent premature as it’s highly likely that prototype testing would result in design changes not included in the patent.

It gets worse. Not only does he not have a prototype, he doesn’t even have calculations to at least theoretically prove the potential of his design. Yet he’s confident it will be close to 80 per cent efficient.

As long as inventors like him can talk the talk, blind non-experts with apparent science, buy a useless patent and benefit from the convenient absence of a prototype, they can preserve their belief in their idea and in their own inventiveness.

But the moment they try to interest industry, the music stops. Suddenly they encounter experts who can recognise a naive or long discounted or unviable idea in seconds.

They may then claim they’re being cold-shouldered by an industry blind to the genius of their design. All to no avail. The brick wall remains a brick wall.

The lesson in this for all inventors – not just those who design IC engines – is that at soon as the Big Idea hits, there has to be a thorough reality check.

Look at the odds. How much R&D effort already goes into that technology field? The greater it is, the less realistic it is to think that a lone outsider knows something that the whole of that industry doesn’t.

Even if (improbably) the idea is a good one, the difficulty of getting taken seriously may not be worth the time and personal risk involved.

But if you’re a smart, head-screwed-on, entrepreneurial inventor, don’t worry. You’ll think of something that’s equally good as an idea, but is a more realistic prospect for commercialisation.

So forget that internal combustion engine dream. It isn’t going to happen. You’re competing with legions of people who are not called experts for nothing.

Instead, dig around in that restless, inventive brain of yours and come up with something else that is actually achievable.


  • 17 Nov 2014 | Permalink |

    You make some great points here about commercialisation process and especially the timing and completeness of the patent.

    Can I propose an exception to this statement though? “Look at the odds. How much R&D effort already goes into that technology field? The greater it is, the less realistic it is to think that a lone outsider knows something that the whole of that industry doesn’t.”

    There is a huge amount of innovation that comes from transferring ideas between industries – I see a lot of truly great technologies being brought into industries from the outside. The classic example I see cited is the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the cyclone was well known in the sawmill industry 100 years ago but new to the domestic cleaning industry. Applying a technology across industries can appear to have the same “lone outsider” problem – but is a completely different situation!

    One of the companies I am developing for spinout right now is exactly the same – it brings ideas from one area of scientific measurement to another. We are in a different position as we have invested to get the needed performance data, prototypes, and even lead customers, but a lot of our meetings start the same way – “what can you know that the giants of this industry don’t”.


    • Graham Barker
      18 Nov 2014 | Permalink |

      Thanks for the comment, Ian. You’re right that Dyson appears to be an exception. I’d argue though that he was thorough enough in his research to discover that R&D had pretty much atrophied in vacuum cleaner world, so he was able to bring a ‘new old’ idea to the table that eventually (after 15 years!) changed everything.

      The inventors I was having a dig at wouldn’t do that. They research nothing with any diligence. They take one cursory look around and conclude: ‘I don’t see my idea out there, so everybody must have missed it.’ Often they’re very sincere, earnest individuals, but they need a bucket of water flung over them to wake them up to reality.