The Technium

Invention and Discovery Are the Same

To find something is the same as making it. To make something is the same as finding it.

We tend to think that natural forms are discovered while artificial forms are invented, but when stripped to its essentials the path to arriving at a novel natural form is exactly the same journey as arriving at a novel artificial form. Discovery and invention are the same process:

In both cases there is a search in a sea of uncertainty, errors made and corrected, detours, serendipitous gain, surprise, failure, re-try, repeat, exploration. Artists invent, discover. Scientists invent, discover. Explorers invent, discover.

The following unconventional formulations are true statements:

Calculus was discovered by both Leibniz and Newton.

Black holes were invented by John Mitchell in 1783.

Transatlantic radio communication was discovered by Marconi.

The planet Pluto was invented in 1930.

Steam engines were discovered in English mines.

The electron was invented by Ernest Rutherford.

The light bulb was discovered by many tinkers including Edison.

The red shift of galaxies was invented by Walter Adams.

Hamlet was discovered by Shakespeare.

Columbus invented America.

Tim Berners-Lee discovered the world wide web.

Someday we may invent an alien civilization.

I hope to discover another book.

You can swap the terms “discover” and “invent” without altering the meaning.

In the fine arts there seem to be an unnatural distinction between found and made. “Found” art is not deemed as important as made art. Recently a respected photographer, Michael Wolf (I am a fan of his), was awarded a prize for photographs which he found in/on Google Street View. Because he did not “make” or take the photos, but “merely” found them, his award was protested and controversial. This worry is misplaced. Objectively there is no difference between hunting for images on Main Street or on Google Street. In photography especially there is no difference between making or finding.

In real life there are so many moving parts that anything that CAN happen will happen sooner or later. The same math applies to Google Street View. So many roving cameras, cruising all day, everyday, in so many cities of the world, that sooner or later, anything that can happen will happen while a camera is running.


Out of this statistical abundance, Wolf strolled through with his “camera.” He spent weeks scrolling through Google Street View, hunting for “decisive moments” that he could frame and capture with a screen shot. He was mainly looking for calamities, and he called his collection a “series of unfortunate events,” which won him an Honorable Mention at the prestigious World Press Photo 2011 contest. Wolf later strolled through Paris Street View as well.


Wolf was not the first to mine Street View. There are other collections as well. Jon Rafman’s 9-eyes is one. Sample images here:



Wolf talks about his process:

  • AnthonyC

    I can accept that invention is a form of discovery- that mathematical forms, steam engines, Macbeth, and constitutional government were discovered as truly as they were invented.
    I find it much more difficult to say that natural phenomena are invented when humans identify and name them. The type of object which we call a black hole existed before we identified/observed/thought about it.

    In other words, it feels to me like invention is a subset of discovery, rather than equivalent to it.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      The ways by which a black hole is invented are several. For one thing, “back hole” was first proposed as a theoretical idea. It was in fact invented in the normal use of the word. Secondly, when black holes were later observed, we assign them existence based on our concepts, our definitions. Most phenomenon have indistinct boundaries and great variation, and what we name is conceptually bounded. So in that sense, we apply a concept (which we create) to the form.

      • Hugo L. Casanova

        So there is no discovery. Everthing is invented when we determine it and describe it. Would this be the extereme of this thinking? I would go for that. The terms are not interchangable, one of them is useless.
        If one is useless, maybe the term used hides a perspective, a bias. Calling the action discovery implies that one believes that there is a thing that exists, before it is discovered. Calling it invention suggests that the human doing the inventing is an agent in the novel apparition of the thing.

  • Mark

    In the general case, invention and discovery are the same only if internal and external are the same. Nevertheless, I concede that when you invent, you discover the invention, in a mental landscape. When you discover, it is by recognizing (inventing) a distinction or concept previously unknown. Processes of observation and creation have a lot in common, since both involve focus, sustained effort, perception, association, conceptualization, and joy.

  • In French, the legal term to designate the person who finds a treasure is “inventeur” – so there seem to be deep roots melding the concepts of invention and discovery.

  • Not sure I agree. The thought process for invention v. discovery is often very different. To discover something requires a set of intellectual tools that involve stripping away imagination in many cases, in order that you can “find” that which has possibly been hidden by convention, ignorance or simple misdirection. Columbus and America, for example, did require, yes, an act of imagination to believe that something previously “impossible” might be attainable. The decision to make the voyage, though, was predicated on assembling facts and conjecture in ways that confirmed an hypothesis based on observation, not imagination. I may imagine, conversely, that the world is flat… no amount of rational investigation, research and sweat will help me discover that as a new fact.

    On the flip side, invention often requires acts of imagination that absolutely flaunt what is seen as possible or even believable. You mention that steam engines were discovered in English coal mines. Well… actually they were discovered by the Greeks more than 2,000 years previously. But the ability for steam to power a mechanism was considered a toy, on par with spring-wound automata. It took many discoveries about the nature of gravity, steam, leverage, water pressure (and, in this case, economics and patent law) for someone to want to take the time and invent a steam engine capable of pumping water out of a coal mine. Discoveries were necessary for invention, in this case, but not vice versa. If it were true that the knowledge of physical science was all that was necessary for the development of the modern steam engine, the Chinese would have done it centuries earlier. Culturally, though, their history prepared them well for discovery, but less for invention.

    In art… I really think this falls down. Shakespeare didn’t discover his works, unless you assume an entirely different definition for “discover” than what we normally use. It’s a provocative way of putting things… but then the question becomes, “could anyone else have discovered his works.” The answer is, really… no. He discovered them inside himself. Which is a decent working definition for invention… but kind of begs the point.

    Intriguing idea, and a fun thought exercise. But I’d be more interested to know how you think the processes of creativity for invention v. discovery are both similar and different. I think they’re quite different… but maybe that’s because I’ve invented lots of stuff, but never discovered anything ;-)

  • grisscoat

    Perhaps we could call them different movements of the same process . . .

  • Daniel Schealler

    100% agree.

    The space of potential artistic expressions that may be manifested is infinite and expanding.

    Artistic skill is the ability to navigate that space and extract good outcomes from the possible and make them real.

    However, I won’t be so bold to suggest the mechanisms by which this may occur. ^_^

  • archie

    Yes, indeed. Took me a few minutes but I now agree wholeheartedly. All ‘things’ those parts of experience that are isolated only because we divide our conscious experience into parts are no more than concepts. In such a way can Pluto be invented and steam engines discovered. Brilliant insight though – thank you for this.

  • 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.

  • The Null Stern Hotel in Teufen, Appenzellerland, Switzerland and the Concrete Mushrooms in Albania are former nuclear bunkers transformed into hotels.