“And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared” is the name of Genrich Altshuller’s book which illustrated a large collection of his problem solving principles through riddles and stories. He had a crazy comb-over, wrote children’s books, personally insulted Stalin, went to prison, invented the best known system for solving technical problems – and owned a pile of patents as a kid. Other than that, he pretty lived an ordinary life.
Altshuller is best known as the inventor of TRIZ – which is an acronym for this longer Russian phrase: теория решения изобретательских задач,” which literally means “theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks.” In English, this is sometimes referred to by “the theory of inventive problem solving”, but most often just referred to with the acronym “TRIZ” (even though English speakers would have no chance of articulating the Russian phrase).
Altshuller’s life was as colorful and interesting as the TRIZ principles which he developed. As a child, he invented a rocket, a flamethrower and a spacesuit – earning multiple “inventor’s certificates” (similar to patents). He joined the Soviet army in the midst of WWII – studying aviation. Shortly after the war, Alshuller began devising his problem solving rules – largely on the observation that most successful inventions were the result of resolving a contradiction. Something must be light but strong. Flexible, yet durable. Solid, yet fluid. Seeing these and other patterns, he began developing the greatest accomplishment of his life’s work: TRIZ.
Full of enthusiasm about his new insights, he wrote a letter to Stalin to criticize the current state of inventiveness in the USSR. Somehow, Stalin neglected to see the humor in the note – and our hero ended up in prison as a political prisoner – though fortunately was released after just a few years – rather than the 25 years that he was sent away for.
As he found it difficult to find employment, by application of his own TRIZ methods, he became convinced that the “invention” he needed was to earn income by writing. He became a successful science fiction writer under the name of “G. Alto.” He continued writing – and eventually returned to being the TRIZ champion that we all know and love. From the 1970’s on, he became highly involved in teaching TRIZ, speaking – and continuing to write.
In the US, Altshuller’s legacy lives on through those who were personally trained by him. Many of them are of Russian descent, and tend to be centered in consultancies in either Boston or Detroit.
His book “And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared” lets us see how this genius ticked. He frames up many problems as little riddles – giving you, the reader, the opportunity to solve it before reading the answer in the back of the book. For example, party goers are admiring a chocolate candy with a fruit-flavored gel at the center. How could you get the gel into the center since it was a solid? If you heated it to a liquid, it would melt the chocolate when inserting it. (Give up?) The answer, is that you first freeze the gel, then dip it into molten chocolate – and of course the gel will eventually settle at room temperature as the chocolate hardens.
The book is full of fantastic quotes:
Everything changes over time, but the method of trial and error remains the same.
If it cannot be done now, it should be done in advance.
At the heart of every technical contradiction is a hidden physical contradiction.
TRIZ is a well-known method that every decent innovator should be familiar with. But Mr. Altshuller is an interesting cat in his own right. I cannot help but think that if we can understand the man himself a bit better, we’ll gain greater insights into his greatest invention – TRIZ.