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Creativity from Constraints

Adam Morgan (of EatBigFish) has literally written the book on how constraints can catalyse creative or different thinking. He used a great example of this in his Firestarters episode which I recorded some months back. For the 2006 Le Mans race Audi were developing a brand new race car to take their performance at the event to a whole new level. The logical question to ask the team would have been ‘How do we build a faster car?’ but wanting to break open their thinking and be more progressive Audi’s Chief Engineer actually asked the question ‘How could we win Le Mans if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?’. This combination of a bold ambition, a significant constraint, and what Adam calls a ‘propelling question’ led to them putting diesel technology into their race cars for the first time:

For the answer was fuel efficiency: they could win Le Mans with a car that wasn’t faster than any of the other cars, if it took fewer pit stops. And they were right: the R10 TDI placed first at Le Mans for the next three years.’

I love the idea of creativity from constraints and by chance I came across another great example today.

How do you build a bugging device that has no power source and is undetectable by bugging devices? Russian physicist and cello player Leon Theremin (who eventually went on to invent the Theremin musical instrument) was put in a Soviet prison over World War Two and forced by the state to work on a new listening device which could be untraceable. In the summer of 1945, weeks before the end of the Second World War, a group of children from a Soviet Young Pioneer Organisation paid a visit to Averell Harriman, then U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in Moscow, and presented him with a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States as an offering of friendship.

The seal was hung in the Ambassador’s office but unknown to him it actually had a new type of bugging device which had been invented by Theremin embedded within it. Soviet agents could listen in to the conversations being held in the ambassador’s office for the next seven years before the device was finally discovered by accident.

The device became known as ‘The Thing’, mainly because when it was discovered US scientists couldn’t work out exactly what it was or how it operated. It had a very delicate membrane which vibrated when people spoke in the room, the sound waves being converted into an electro-magnetic signal which was transmitted to an outside decoding device.

The genius of Theremin’s invention was that it could operate with no power source. It used the vibrations from radio waves sent from outside the building to activate it and draw the energy it needed to work. The rest of the time it remained passive. This meant that it could run indefinitely without the need for batteries or an electrical power source but also that it was almost undetectable by conventional bugging devices. The constraints placed on Theremin by his Soviet captors had led to him thinking very differently about how a listening could work and avoid detection at the same time.

The Thing was only discovered when military radio operators were listening in on Soviet military radio chat and by chance heard U.S. voices. Two U.S. security experts had to pretend to dictate a secret memo in Harriman’s office to track where the electromagnetic signal was coming from.

Thirty years after The Thing was discovered the technology behind Theremin’s invention formed the basis for Charles Watson’s RFID ( Radio Frequency Identification Technology) which has now become ubiquitous in credit cards, passports and everything that includes an RFID chip.

Image: Joachim Köhler, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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