Monday, June 29, 2009

Cai Lun (蔡伦) and the Ancient Chinese Invention of Paper: Lessons for Modern Innovators

Among the many inventions that came from ancient China, four in particular have been given attention for their impact on the modern world. Known today as the “Four Great Inventions” (四大发明; or “si da fa ming”), they are:

  1. The Compass
  2. Gunpowder
  3. Papermaking
  4. Printing

Who can overestimate the profound impact of the last two intertwined inventions on our world today? But providing the proper credit for these ancient inventions is a difficult task. Today, though, I wish to honor the Chinese innovation of paper by giving attention to one of its foremost ancient champions.

As Dard Hunter wrote in his classic book on the history of paper (Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1943), the development of most crafts, including papermaking, are enshrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, the best information we have points to a servant of the Chinese imperial court, a eunuch named Cai Lun (sometimes spelled Ts’ai Lun), as the man who should be or at least can be credited with the innovation of paper in 105 A.D. This was during the height of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220, more specifically the Eastern Han Dynasty, AD 25–220), one of several golden eras of Chinese history.

I choose my words carefully when I speak of the innovation and not necessarily the invention of paper. The invention–the original creation of a web made from macerated, individual fibers laid down in a slurry on a porous support such as a wire or cloth–may have been by someone else. There is archaeological evidence of paper made from hemp decades earlier, and there is the probability that in Cai Lun’s day, others working for him devised or improved the papermaking process that has long been associated with his name. But Cai Lun took paper beyond being a technical invention and helped drive its widespread adoption such that it became a successful innovation, one that would stick and change the world for centuries to come.

The history of innovation teaches us that a single inventor is rarely responsible for a noteworthy invention, especially one that dramatically changes the world for good. A long list of people may have contributed knowledge and advances to the creation of paper in Cai Lun’s day, with many thousands having done the same since his time to give us the brilliant spectrum of products and processes we now know.

In the fifth century, the Chinese scholar Fan Ye credited Cai Lun (蔡伦) with the discovery of paper in his official history of the Han Dynasty. He writes that Cai Lun, a highly regarded eunuch in the Imperial Court, applied his talents to solve the problem of making writing more convenient. Writing and inscriptions were done on bamboo or silk strips, but these were not convenient materials to work with and silk was costly. Fan Ye credits Cai Lun with having “conceived the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, hemp waste, old rags, and fish nets.” Perhaps he was the originator, the one who conceived of and invented paper, or rather, reinvented or improved what others had tried earlier. Perhaps he had a vision for improving a prototype material and the method of making it, and gave directions to his staff for the trials to run to obtain breakthrough improvement. In any case, Fan Ye indicates that he and his crew conducted research on this topic, made significant advances, and then, importantly, made a report to the Emperor that was highly regarded and gained support.

The China Internet Information Center (China.Org.Cn) reports that when Cai Lun presented his first batch of paper to the Han emperor, the emperor was so delighted that he named the material “Marquis Cai’s paper.” In 1974, archaeologists found Eastern Han Dynasty paper found in Wuwei with written words that were still clearly decipherable. “Thin, soft, and with a smooth finish and tight texture, this paper is the most refined and oldest paper discovered to date.” [This may exclude some older cruder specimens.]

In addition to Cai Lun’s technical advances, his report to the Emperor may have been a crucial step in driving the social adoption of paper, resulting in its widespread use. According to Fan Ye, after he submitted his work to the Emperor, he “received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called 'the paper of Marquis Cai.” Paper was about to become more than a rare find in future archaeological digs, but a universally used medium that would change the world for centuries, even millennia to come.

Many inventions wither away into obscurity and fail to become lasting innovations until the right person with the right vision, means, and connections comes along and breathes life and fullness into the concept. Cai Lun, with access to the Emperor, with a vision of the potential of the invention, and with the credibility and track record to make a report that would gain imperial attention and support, was such a man. It is Cai Lun whom we can properly credit for successfully driving the innovation of paper into ancient Chinese and ultimately world history, regardless of how much of the actual inventing was done by him.

Cai Lun was born in Guiyang (modern day Leiyang). He served as a court eunuch since AD 75, was then promoted several during the time of Emperor He of the Han Dynasty. Around AD 97, he would distinguish himself and his men through his highly skilled work in producing swords and other weapons that served as models for future weapons production.

After his success with paper, he was praised and rewarded with the taxes from three hundred dwellings and became a chief in the palace. He was also trusted in correcting some important written histories.

Unfortunately, Cai Lun became involved in imperial intrigue, assisting the Empress in dealing with a romantic rival for the Emperor’s attention. When power shifted in AD 121, he was called to be judged for his role. Rather than appear for judgment, Cai Lun bathed, dressed in his finest robes, and then drank poison, ending the life of the great innovator whom we can honor for one of the most important inventions in the history of civilization.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Book Is Out: Conquering Innovation Fatigue, Published by John Wiley and Sons

I'm happy to announce that our book on innovation, intellectual asset strategy, and entrepreneurship is hot off the presses at John Wiley and Sons, the publisher that was my first choice for Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Cheryl Perkins, CEO of Innovationedge and named by BusinessWeek in 2006 as one of the world's "Top 25 Champions of Innovation," is a co-author, along with Mukund Karanjikar, an innovator who was with Chevron Energy Ventures when we began developing this book in 2006 and now is a consultant in Salt Lake City with Technology Holding LLC.

I just received my first printed copy of the book. It's so nice to have the tangible product in hand after this three-year journey leading to the book in print. Whew! Was much more challenging than I thought.

Conquering Innovation Fatigue focuses on the personal side of innovation and reveals the often unseen "innovation fatigue factors" that can shut down innovation. It's written for entrepreneurs, business leaders, inventors, and even government officials, showing these unseen and often unintended barriers and revealing how they can be overcome.

Throughout the book there is a focus on intangibles such as the trust between an innovator and an employer that can be easily destroyed through a variety of corporate actions, resulting in an invisible innovation killer. See our chapter on "Breaking the Will to Share." We give a plug for Value Network Analysis (with a hat tip to Verna Allee of and are informed by the VNA mindset in many of the issues we explore as we consider the personal side of innovation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Visualizing the Unseen: Powerful Tools in Innovation

An exciting development in materials science is a new class of polymers that change color when under stress. The American Chemical Society recently highlighted the work of Dr. Nancy R. Sottos at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who spearheaded the research that provided the first solid polymers that change color as a function of stress. This provides an important new tool in visualizing what is happening when materials fail and deform. Tools that make the unseen visible often opens up progress in many other areas. The ACS article on this work gives a hint at some of the advances that may follow:
"These polymers are extremely interesting to materials scientists since they combine photo-, thermo-, and mechanochromic properties into a single system," comments Stephen H. Foulger, a materials science professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina. "These properties, coupled with the fact that the color change can be maintained with the cessation of stress, can be exploited by engineers in the design of polymeric components that visually indicate to the end-user their stress, strain, thermal, or ultraviolet-visible light exposure history. It's a true smart material," he says.

Sottos tells C&EN that the work demonstrates the concept that mechanical force can trigger the activation of specific covalent bonds in a polymer. She hopes to develop new mechanophores that do more than just change color. For example, molecules that cross-link or polymerize in response to mechanical stress could lead to self-toughening or self-healing materials, she says.

Polymers and material science are not the only place where progress occurs when that which was long invisible can now be seen. Innovation is possible in how we do business or run an organization when we apply new tools to track and observe the typically invisible flow of intangibles in the value network or ecosystem of the organization. These intangible include the sharing of knowledge, the communication and relationship building activities that occur in transactions between individuals that aren't described by looking at tangibles like the flow of goods, services, and money in the value chain, the visible things that are normally observed in business and organizations. Much of the performance of an organization depends on the hard-to-see intangibles that create the knowledge, loyalty, trust, and relationships that are often the primary engines for business health and success.

Intangibles can be visualized, at least to some degree, using Value Network Analysis and related tools. By considering and searching for the nature of the human-to-human transactions of intangibles and mapping these, visualized organizational characteristics can do much to help analysts understand strengths and weakness of an organization, and point to areas where improvement is needed.

If you're not considering both tangibles and intangibles in your business, if you haven't mapped out your ecosystem to understand how your organization works, then you may benefit from Value Network Analysis, which is one of the services that Innovationedge and its associates can provide for your organization.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Practice Tip for Preparing Information Disclosure Statements (PTO Form SB08a)

For those of you who file patents electronically or simply use the PTO's online forms in filing and prosecuting patents, you may have experienced some problems in the past with PDF forms that couldn't be saved. Many of these forms have now been improved, so recent versions may let you save information. But there are still some pitfalls. For example, the other day I was preparing an Information Disclosure Statement (IDS) for a client using the PDF form that pops up from the PTO forms page when you click on the link labeled "SB08a EFS-WEB," a form intended for online filing. Clicking on it opens the PDF file directly in your browser. TIP: save it as a PDF file and open it outside your browser with Adobe Acrobat. If you fill it out directly in the browser, I've found that the backspace key occasionally gets interpreted as a back-arrow click (in Firefox 3, anyway) that takes the browser to the previous URL, causing total loss of all the unsaved data in your PDF file. Aggravating.

Save, open with Acrobat, edit, and repeatedly save while editing with a simple Control-S.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Business Method Patents: Is Your Company (Or Nation) Missing an Opportunity?

While some have feared that business method patents have become dead in the US after In Re Bilski and other challenges, these appear to be either minor irritants or even wholesome corrections, leaving very real opportunities for those who innovate in business methods. Are you missing out? Is your field of business, or even nation?

IPFrontline has an excellent article from May 22 on business method patents. Patent Protection and Financial Institutions by Alexandra Daoud, Malcolm McLeod, and Mitchell Wolfe shows that US financial institutions have been aggressive in pursuing patents in the United States as well as in Canada, where many of our institutions also have operations. On the other hand, Canadian financial institutions, many with operations on both sides of the border, have filed far less. Many significant Canadian institutions have filed nothing in the US or Canada, and even the leaders have only filed a tiny handful. Clearly, Canadian businessmen in that sector don't see the same opportunities that their US counterparts do. Could it be that a lack of awareness is costing them an important opportunity to protect their intellectual assets?

How is your business or sector of the economy doing in its IP strategy? Are you focused on traditional patents for gadgets and the methods of making them? Do you recognize that much of the innovation that drives the economy involves how we do business, what we do with data, how we manage relationships, and how we interact with partners and customers? If that is where much of the most valuable innovation is found in your area, what are you doing to protect it? Isn't it time to get more aggressive about non-traditional patents, including business method patents?

When I was Corporate Patent Strategist at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, one of my most exciting initiatives was introducing a formal effort to pursue business method patents. K-C was a world leader in some of its methods. By creating a Cross-Sector Business Method Group, we were able to educate teams across the Corporation about the opportunities and help many previously unheralded inventors recognize that they were in fact creating patentable material. We helped many of them gain recognition and file valuable patent application, including applications in RFID, marketing, inventory management, spare parts, logistics, relationship management, etc. It was one of the most exciting aspects of my work there. Pursuing opportunities of this nature requires a lot of evangelism and education. It also requires some serious grunt work as you help teams scour their work and figure out where inventions can be found and protected. But these efforts can do a lot of good, if you have the right support from management and Legal.