Invention of the automobile – and competitive advantage

This Sunday is a special day in the history of the world (no, the Super Bowl is the next week). As Business Week explains:

The automobile celebrates its 120th birthday on January 29, 2006, the anniversary of the date in 1886 on which Karl Benz applied for a patent for his motorized vehicle. With the German Reich Patent No. 37435a, granted in November of the same year, his Patent Motor Car, as this three-wheeled vehicle has since been known, received official recognition as the world’s first automobile. It was the individualized technology that secured the Benz Patent Motor Car this status. Unlike other inventors, Benz did not merely install an internal combustion engine into an existing coach chassis, thereby making it capable of autonomous motion (Greek/latin: auto/mobil). His design extended to the entire vehicle: It was quite clear to him that a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine was subject to engineering principles quite different from those applying to a horse-drawn carriage.

And I suppose you are one of those who, like me, were taught that Henry Ford invented the automobile.
Ford didn’t invent it. What Ford did was much more important. He commercialized the auto through a series of innovations – technical, organization and financial. Before Ford, the automobile was a rich-man’s toy; after Ford it was an everyday item. Mass produced to be cheap enough to be affordable by all. Simple yet strong enough to replace the horse for rural travel. Economically dynamic with linkages throughout the economy to help create the massive middle class.
As this history lessen shows, invention or great technical ideas are not enough. There is more to innovation than a smart engineer.
Now, if we can just get our policymakers to understand that lesson they might be able to craft a complete innovation policy.

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