For many people, if you are told to think of a wacky scientist, the name of Nikola Tesla usually comes up at the top of the list.
Anyone remember his Tesla coil in “Command and Conquer: Red Alert”? I always loved that thing when playing the game on my computer. Unfortunately this was one of his ideas that did not see mass production.
He was a veritable genius who came up with very creative ideas, and his propensity for first principles thinking can serve as an inspiration for any budding inventor in training.
Tesla was a very original thinker and one technique that he used to come up with ideas is visualization. He would literally picture his inventions in his head.
This is something that he learned to do through experience and it can be learned by you as well.
As a boy, his head was full of things that annoyed him and so he started using the visualization technique to get rid of these thoughts:
“By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish efforts to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, businessman or artist.“
The first step of the visualization method is the incubation period. You gather building blocks of knowledge and let your mind ruminate on them in the background:
“Here in brief, is my own method: after experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.“
In the second step, there is a period of direct effort, or thinking of the specifics:
“Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.“
The mind starts playing around with all the different building blocks and then connects them subconsciously.
“The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.”
The key is to think of everything in your mind first, to examine different features and make improvements to this mental model before you put anything on paper:
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.“
An important thing to remember is to always keep the big picture in mind and start with a holistic view before you start working on the details:
“Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.“
Tesla came up with many great inventions using this method:
“The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.“