Innovation Magazine and the Birth of a Buzzword

Today’s technoculture of entrepreneurship and creative problem solving owes much to this 1960s magazine

11 min read
Photo: Ben Alsop
Photo: Ben Alsop

In January 1970, two hundred technology managers met at a secluded mansion in Glen Cove, Long Island. Their mission: to learn what it takes to be an innovator. From the comfort of their rooms, executives from the likes of AT&T, Honeywell, IBM, and 3M talked shop via closed-circuit television and telephone with leading entrepreneurs, science administrators, and academics, who paced the stage of an intimate theater as they wove parables about how their lives were changed by the “accelerating rush of innovation.” Each evening, the speakers again held court in the bar, where attendees were encouraged to “seize the chance to ask the speaker just how an idea he has presented applies to your particular situation.”

The workshop, for which participants paid the equivalent of US $3,000 today, was the brainchild of a new media start-up called Technology Communication. The weekend event captured the clublike exclusivity, expert insight, and collective self-help for revolutionary times that the new venture sought to embrace.

Revolution, no doubt, was on attendees’ minds. As corporate managers, they were being forced to reinvent themselves and their companies for an exciting but unsettling age. In the previous two years, they had witnessed the Apollo moon landing, fierce anti–Vietnam War protests, sweeping environmental regulations, landmark civil rights legislation, the exponential growth of the microelectronics industry, and the bold emergence of international competition. Technology Communication chronicled all of these episodes in its monthly magazine, Innovation, and expanded on them in events like the Long Island gathering. The start-up was selling a foothold for survival in a world in which industry, academe, government, and civil society were in chaotic flux. Rather than simply read about strategies for staying afloat, participants sought to exchange ideas firsthand on how to ride the waves of change.

Today, of course, innovation is everywhere: As professionals, we’re continually reminded that we live in an innovation economy requiring self-styled careers of the sort trumpeted in executive-education programs, TED talks, and self-help best sellers. No mere buzzword, “innovation” generates excitement about working on the front lines of the future—as well as suspicion about the motives of those uttering this management-speak. And we reserve the superlative title of “innovator” for those bright few who have transcended the traditional labels of “engineer,” “scientist,” or “inventor.”

This perspective did not always exist. Indeed, it owes a substantial debt to the people behind Innovation, whose rise and fall coincides with the birth of a new way of talking about innovation and a new ideal of what makes an innovator.

imgInnovation’s use of provocative graphics and design mirrored its lively coverage of technology and business. Subscribers also had direct access to experts via conference calls, workshops, and lab visits.Photo: Ben Alsop

Technology Communication was founded in 1969 to capitalize on the confluence of these world-changing forces. It was a partnership between the publisher William Maass and the journalist Robert Colborn, in consultation with a Bell Telephone Laboratories research director named Jack Morton. The company placed ads in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific Americaninviting readers to become members of a new community: the Innovation Group. The group, the ads declared, would be “a set of men very important to this country”—and in 1969 nearly all technologists were men—who shared an art without “teachers or precedents or tradition.” Together, the group’s members would address the promises and perils of technology while also turning a profit and enjoying meaningful and creative lives.

The Innovation Group’s advisors, most of whom starred at the Long Island workshop, lived up to this lofty billing. They included 3M vice president of research and development Robert Adams; former U.S. congressman and architect of the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment Emilio Daddario; Fairchild Semiconductor chairman C. Lester Hogan; engineer and influential policymaker J. Herbert Hollomon; NEC founder Koji Kobayashi; and the eminent psychologist Donald Marquis, who founded the technology management program at MIT’s Sloan School.

Accordingly, Innovation was intended not as an end in itself but rather as a catalyst—a “vehicle for initiating a process of interaction,” a company ad declared. Designed by the renowned Madison Avenue firm Chermayeff & Geismar, the magazine’s colorful and clean style blended modernism with countercultural flourishes. It carried no advertising, a point of pride for the editorial staff. The choice of topics cut across disciplines and industries. Issue 6, which came out in October 1969, included articles about the automobile industry’s struggles to adapt to postindustrialism [PDF], the role of artists at NASA [PDF], a tribute to cybernetics expert Warren McCulloch [PDF], and a theoretical analysis of the diffusion of innovation [PDF]. Informal interviews with contributors and a breezy, conversational tone made even the most esoteric subject seem accessible and familiar.

An annual membership fee of $75 (or slightly more for those outside the United States) included a subscription to Innovation, a newsletter, telephone conference calls with authors, a membership database, and invitations to in-person events like the Long Island meeting. Later, the company would offer subscriptions to the magazine for $35, making it one of the most expensive magazines on the planet. The group received additional funding from a venture capital group within what is now Citigroup.

02OLInnovations3-1421869995580.jpgInnovation’s bold design, by Chermayeff & Geismar, was apparent from the cover of the first issue, in May 1969 (above).Photo: Ben Alsop

The Innovation Group’s unique approach was actually a refinement of its founders’ vision, which they had been honing for the better part of a decade. That vision was a product of the post-Sputnik era, in which a rising chorus of stakeholders called for better science communication, improved primary and secondary education, more human portrayals of scientists, and new means for professionals to combat information overload.

In 1961, Maass, a vice president at the trade publisher Conover-Mast, launched International Science and Technology as a general-interest magazine for scientists and engineers. More cutting edge than Scientific American and less technical than Science, IST was distributed free of charge to 120,000 scientists and engineers. Funding came from corporate advertising, with scientific statesmen like Ernst Weber, the IEEE’s soon-to-be first president, lending the publication some authoritative heft.

Maass—whom a reporter at the Long Island workshop described as a “supercharged, crackling blur of a man”—assembled an exceptional team of scientifically trained journalists. Most notable was IST senior editor Colborn, who’d just spent a decade as managing editor of Business Week. A civil engineering graduate of Dartmouth, he was also the author of a 1958 nuclear-disaster novel, The Future Like a Bride, about the inner life of a physicist-administrator.

IST offered a then-unique focus on the infrastructure of science. In addition to carrying interviews with Nobel Prize winners, the magazine worked with research managers and industrial scientists to describe and analyze what they did. These features publicized research and development as an “innovation process,” an interpretation then percolating among economists and management experts.

A 1964 article of this sort, “From Research to Technology,” altered the trajectories of both its author, Jack Morton, and the IST staff. The Bell Labs manager explained how he had guided the transistor from laboratory to market, and how the experience had opened the door to a general systems theory of innovation. In 1966, he followed up with “The Microelectronics Dilemma,” which charted the decentralized expansion of microelectronics companies and the incessant creative destruction it generated. To “survive and grow in a new era of technology,” Morton wrote, required mastery of the “people-process of innovation.”

On 1 January 1969, Colborn, Maass, and much of theIST staff abandoned traditional publishing to form Technology Communication. Society was undergoing an epochal shift, they believed. The Innovation Group would be a network in tune with this Heraclitian age, and Innovation’s staff would be its facilitators.

Three overlapping aims guided the Innovation Group. First, it was a social network for managerial innovators to engage with their like-minded peers. Second, the core “product” the group was cultivating was new forms of innovation expertise—that is, the knowledge and practices members would need to achieve success in a volatile world. Third, the group was defining the cultural contours of a new kind of interdisciplinary professional—the change manager.

In its unusual approach to selling magazines, Technology Communication created a social technology that it hoped would spawn local innovation groups across the world. A kind of proto-LinkedIn, Innovation was intended as a space for sharing problems, putting seemingly disparate ideas on an equal plane, and aiding entrepreneurs in their pursuits. Innovation was no mere periodical: The July 1969 issue, for instance, offered members a direct phone line to venture capitalists Georges Doriot and Arthur Rock.

InnovationsComposite-1421871142075.jpgMen of Innovation (clockwise from top left): An Innovation Group “active seminar”; Congressman Emilio Daddario, an advisor to the group; Michael F. Wolff, Innovation’s second (and last) editor; Bell Labs research manager Jack Morton (gesturing), another key advisor; founding editor Robert Colborn (left) and publisher William Maass, who together forged  Innovation’s unique business model and outlook; and staff writer Nilo Lindgren.Photos: Innovation

As the Innovation Group grew, it extended the boundaries of print media in search of new ways to connect people and ideas. In the September 1971 issue, for example, Innovation published one of the earliest profiles of computer visionary Douglas Engelbart [PDF]. Members could sign up for a seminar with Engelbart in his laboratory at the Stanford Research Institute, in Menlo Park, Calif. There they could try out the augmentation system made famous by his 1968 public demonstration, in which he debuted a number of groundbreaking technologies, including the computer mouse.

In January 1972, Technology Communication expanded its electronic services by partnering with another start-up called TeleSession Corp. Founded in 1970 by marketing expert Ron Richards and psychologist George Silverman, TeleSession started as a late-night telephone-based chat group, where strangers could discuss common interests. The Innovation Group used the TeleSession switchboards to build virtual workshops around its articles. Branding itself as “the first magazine with an interactive feedback system,”Innovation boasted that economist Milton Friedman dialed into TeleSession from his summer cabin and deemed the experience more valuable than a face-to-face meeting.

Beyond networking opportunities, the Innovation Group’s main attraction was access to innovation-related expertise. Practitioner-theorists of group psychology, economics, systems engineering, philosophy, and landscape architecture shared their work and insights in the pages of the magazine. Innovation’s editors outlined remedies for lumbering corporations, environmental degradation, and various urban ills. Selected articles were later collected in edited books through a partnership with the American Management Association.

The editors were also fascinated with the rise of social movements, covering, for example, MIT’s 1969 anti–Vietnam War work stoppage [PDF]. The radicals, contributors argued, had the right attitude toward novelty and had discovered powerful forms of decentralized organization. (The MIT work-stoppage article was written by a Harvard-educated journalist named Charles Horman, who worked at Innovation from its founding until mid-1970; later, while reporting in Chile during the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup, he was kidnapped and murdered by Chilean soldiers.)

By 1972, Maass had synthesized the Innovation Group’s findings into a “self-energized program” for training change managers in any organization. Such individuals would work to cultivate institutional “climates” that were “flexible, responsive, and innovative.” The program started by guiding these managers through a clear-eyed contextual analysis of technological change within their organizations and industries, informed by management science. Local innovation groups of 12 to 20 change managers could then formulate and execute “action plans” in their given organizations. Technology Communication facilitated the process by providing “discussion packages” and a library of then-cutting-edge videotapes.

In marketing these materials for change managers, the Innovation Group helped shape the skill set as well as the broader cultural image of the innovator. Change managers, the group decreed, had no fixed profession or institution. They merged social and technical solutions. They were creative and artistic. They swam in countercultural currents. They achieved financial and technical goals by drawing on human empathy. They were entrepreneurial risk takers. Most important, they achieved external rewards and inner satisfaction from their faith in the new as a key human virtue.

Innovation constructed intimate portraits of exemplary innovators. Its profile of Engelbart compared the SRI researcher with the antiauthoritarian protagonist of the 1959 short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Engelbart was “broad-shouldered” and “athletic,” “wistful and boyish” but “prematurely gray,” “diffident yet warm,” “gentle yet stubborn,” someone who “wins respect.” Personality and physique mattered, as did passion: Engelbart had a “love affair with augmentation systems.” What counted above all, according to the profile, was the researcher’s clear vision and tenacity to bring that vision to life. Because Engelbart knew that a “revolution like the development of writing and the printing press lumped together” was coming, he had to withdraw from the world in the single-minded pursuit of its transformation.

In Innovation’s view, the ideal innovator was also a managerial iconoclast who wasn’t focused solely on creating new ventures but could also turn around existing institutions, including corporations, universities, and government agencies. Writing in the November 1970 issue, psychologist Frieda B. Libaw described how the change manager was an archetype for “the creative corporation” [PDF]: a collection of individuals who could look change in the eye and embrace its risks and opportunities.

If not for a series of unfortunate events, wemight still look to Innovation as we now do to IEEE Spectrum or Wired for wide-ranging analysis of technological change. But just nine months after the Long Island workshop, Colborn died of cancer at the age of 58. A year later, Morton arrived at a New Jersey bar after closing, where he encountered two would-be muggers. A fistfight ensued. Morton was beaten, put in his car, and set ablaze in a gruesome murder.

Compounding these tragedies, a post-Vietnam recession in the defense industry thwarted the company’s expansion. The stagnation prompted a May 1972 theme issue of Innovation on “myopic research management,” which hectored readers to take advantage of its multimedia tools. A month later, the magazine unceremoniously published its final issue.

The core themes of the Innovation Group, however, exploded in importance during the 1970s and 1980s, as the tectonic shifts of the post-Vietnam period became clear. What once felt like an edgy glimpse into the future now appeared as a self-evident reality, with all manner of experts seeking to prepare a technical workforce for “innovation ecosystems.”

Former Innovation contributors had a hand in this proliferation. Its staff dispersed to technology publications and corporate public relations, and its advisory members remained prominent thought leaders. It also had numerous imitators, including corporate magazines like DuPont’s Innovation, which highlighted the company’s R&D projects, and books like Gene Bylinsky’s The Innovation Millionaires: How They Succeed(1976), which offered colorful profiles of entrepreneurs, scientists, and venture capitalists.

IEEE Spectrum itself bears an imprint of the Innovation Group. The IEEE had created the magazine in 1963 to link its 150,000 diverse members. Six years later, Innovation poached Spectrum senior editor Nilo Lindgren. In addition to writing the previously mentioned profile of Engelbart, Lindgren wrote for the December 1969 issue “The Splintering of the Solid-State Electronics Industry,” [PDF] arguably one of the most influential articles ever published about Silicon Valley. After the start-up’s demise, Lindgren returned to Spectrum, and Innovation editor Michael F. Wolff, who’d taken the helm after Colborn’s death, joined as a contributing editor. The two helped shape the magazine’s tone into the 1980s, among other things creating an “Innovation” article series that profiled entrepreneurs.

Though largely forgotten, Technology Communication created a remarkably robust vision of technoscientific life. Innovation chronicled with gusto how a select few could achieve astonishing levels of creative and financial success. These accounts were not just for aspiring innovators but also for readers in cubicles at IBM, research parks in Palo Alto, Manhattan consulting firms, and academic departments. The change manager’s creed, which Innovation helped define and which is now accepted as an article of faith throughout our digital culture, is that risk and uncertainty are the necessary price of technology-aided growth. Such is the joy and the burden of the technology insider.

This article originally appeared in print as “The Birth of Innovation.”

A correction to this article was made on 02 February 2015.

About the Author

Matthew Wisnioski is an associate professor of science and technology and senior fellow of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech. “Innovation had this remarkably contemporary view of technology and society,” Wisnioski says. Research into the magazine helped spark his latest book project, Every American an Innovator, which looks at the rise of the notion of innovation expertise.

To Probe Further

Innovation ceased publication in June 1972. Below is a representative selection of articles from the magazine, readable as PDFs.

The War Against War Research,” by Charles Horman, Innovation, issue 1, May 1969, pages 30–37.

The Colossus That Is Detroit,” by Donald N. Frey, Innovation, issue 6, October 1969, pages 2–11.

The Birth of Cybernetics—An End to the Old World,” by Nilo Lindgren, Innovation, issue 6, October 1969, pages 12–25.

The Diffusion of Innovation,” by Donald A. Schon, Innovation, issue 6, October 1969, pages 42–53.

NASA’s Littlest Contractor,” by Charles Horman, Innovation, issue 6, October 1969, pages 54–62.

The Splintering of the Solid-State Electronics Industry,” by Nilo Lindgren, Innovation, issue 8, December 1969, pages 2–15.

How to Survive in a Revolution,” by Warren Bennis, Innovation, issue 11, March 1970, pages 2–9.

And Now, the Creative Corporation,” by Frieda B. Libaw, Innovation, issue 19, November 1970, pages 2–13.

Building a Rational Two-Headed Monster: The Management Style of Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore,” by Nilo Lindgren, Innovation, issue 20, December 1970, pages 38–49.

Toward the Decentralized Intellectual Workshop,” by Nilo Lindgren, Innovation, issue 24, April 1971, pages 50-60.

And to better appreciate (or, if you like, reminisce about) the turbulent times in which Innovation and the Innovation Group came to be, see Matthew Wisnioski’s 2012 book, Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America (MIT).

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