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The Innovation Sequence

Posted on January 5th, 2017 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


Innovation can be a new idea, a new product, or a new process. An innovation needs to solve a problem in a new way, saving time or money or creating a new opportunity, otherwise it’s only a novelty.  With this in mind, what role can chemicals and materials play in the innovation process?

Part of the answer depends on how long it takes to innovate.  If the innovation happens quickly, the chemical or material needs to be found and integrated into the overall system just as fast. If the innovation occurs over several years, the system has time to adapt. In my experience, in the beginning stages, innovators grab what they need off the shelf to create a product.  They run to the local hardware store, grocery store, grab a household chemical or whatever is in arms reach.  As the technology matures, the innovator adapts materials and chemicals based on specific needs, eventfully moving to custom developed materials and chemicals.

To explore this theory, let’s start with a simple example of a pen and ink.  One of the earliest records of writing are cave paintings created using fingers and sticks.  These simple tools used plant sap and animal blood as ink (1, 2).  The ink came from the chemicals and materials nearby that could be found and processed quickly and easily.  A few thousand years later, carbon in the form of lamp black was used as a pigment along with gum or glue as a binder (1, 2, 3).  Though lamp black was a common, easily obtained chemical, combining it with a glue or gum comprised a process, making it a product.  The resulting innovation was an ink that was more durable and lasting than its predecessor, and worked well with a brush. Two simple materials that were found around the house helped to improve ink.

As record keeping became important, writing tools started to improve.  The quill was easily turned into a writing tool, and in parallel iron gall ink was developed (1,3).  This was one of the first chemical inks, a combination of tannic acid from vegetables and iron salt.  It was so popular that it was used for decades, until more advanced chemistries were found.

As time progressed, tools became more complicated and the brush led to the quill, which in turn led to the pen.  This shift in technology also drove a shift in chemical development.  New inks were needed that had consistent viscosity so the pen would write, but not leak.  Specific drying times were needed so the ink would not clog or smear.  The ink had to also be robust so the recorded information would not fade, and would stay fresh in a pen.  Saps, blood, carbon and glue were no longer sufficient.  Iron gall ink was hard to make consistently, and both darkened and could eat through paper.  Like a Ford model T, it can in any color as long as it was black.  The mechanical tools had advanced beyond the chemicals readily available from nature and simple blends of common materials.  Fountain pens needed research and development.

Over time, the mechanical systems developed further and the fussy fountain pen led to the ballpoint pen.  The tiny ball at the bottom of a reservoir was a technological marvel. Instead of having to refill your pen and deal with leaks, you could simply write.  However, the liquid inks of the fountain pen would leak out of a ballpoint design.  A different chemical technology was needed.

Enter a Hungarian inventor, Laszlo Biro.  Biro was frustrated with the challenges of fountain pens, including the time it took for the ink to dry.  Biro noted how fast newspaper ink dried and he sought to create a pen that could use fast-drying newspaper ink (4).  However, the high viscosity of the newspaper ink created a challenge.  Biro adapted newspaper ink and added a mechanical innovation of a ball.  The innovation of the ball created a ballpoint pen and started a market war that lasted from the 1940’s to the 1960’s (4).

So far we have seen inks improve from off-the-shelf organic materials to more refined products. In parallel, the machines that process the inks, in this case pens, also became more complex from stick and quills to ballpoint pens.  This trend is shown in Figure 1.  The sequence we are starting to observe is that people first grab what is readily available and, over time, adapt things to fit their needs.  The next step is customization, which can be illustrated with the development of gel inks.

Carlton Washburn Innovation

Figure 1: Trend of increasing customization

Even though the ballpoint pen solved the refilling and drying issue, a lot of pressure was needed to write with it and the delicate float of the fountain pen was missing.  Whereas ballpoint ink was adapted from its predecessor and based on dyes, gel ink was a custom developed chemistry to provide the convenience of a ballpoint and writing experience of a fountain pen.  At this point, the mechanical design of the pen was optimized, but the pen still needed some minor engineering to adapt to the new material. This was the tipping point where instead of adapting the ink chemistry to fit the writing tool, the pen was being adapted for a new ink. The innovation energy had shifted away from the writing tool to fully focus on the ink. Specifically, gel pens used pigments that were suspended in a water-soluble polymer matrix (5&6). This polymer was the result of thousands of tests, which led to the use of xanthan gum.  The polymer is combined with pigments, powdered aluminum or glass for color and sparkle (5&6).

The innovation trend continues.  Where the adaption of the pen mechanics has slowed, ink innovations have been further customized. Though silver inks have been around for years, I even used them over a decade ago to research and develop new fuse designs, a consumer version is relatively recent.  In 2013 a new company was formed to commercialize research developed at the University of Illinois based on silver inks. Electroninks Incorporated developed a custom ink that was free of particles and binders, which allowed printing of very small features sizes.  This innovative technology enabled the ink to be adapted for consumer use through the Circuit Scribe product line.  The pens that Circuit Scribe sells will write with this custom conductive ink, so the user can literally draw a circuit that can light an LED.

We have come full circle.  We started looking at the simplest colored liquids that cave dwellers had access to and walked through pen development and ink adaption that followed.  Then we found a transition where innovation shifted focus from the mechanical pen system to the ink chemistry.  In the present time, we briefly reviewed a conductive ink that transferred information as a wire instead of representing it on paper.  I’ve observed this same trend in many industries, innovators grabbing what is close to fill the need, then adapting what they can find and finally after years of industry refinement, building custom materials and chemicals based on specific needs.  Each role a chemical fills along the way is as valuable as it is different.


  1. Morris, James, (Dec 5, 2014). The History of Ink. The Week. Retrieved from
  2. Bird, Matt. (Dec 14, 2014). The History of Printing And Ink. StinkyInk. Retrieved from
  3. March 18, 2013. Retrieved from
  4. Bellis, Mary, (August 26, 2016). The Battle of the Ballpoint Pens. Retrieved from
  5. 30 Years of Gel Ink Technology. Retrieved from
  6. Schwartz, Debra. (September 2001). Just for the gel of it. Chemical Innovation, 31(9). Retrieved from


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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