What Does Necessity Is the Mother of Invention Mean?

Have you ever heard the phrase necessity is the mother of invention and wondered what it meant? This post will share the definition and origin of this popular proverbial expression, so read on.

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What Does Necessity Is the Mother of Invention Mean?

Before we look at the definition of the phrase as a whole, let’s first explore the meaning of the individual words it contains.

The definition of necessity: something that is necessary, or absolutely needed/required

The definition of mother: in this case, the source or origin of something 

The definition of invention: a product of the imagination; something produced by ingenious thought, and by study and experiment

Looking at these three definitions clearly laid out, we can piece them together to arrive at the basic meaning of the phrase: When it’s absolutely essential that something be done, the urgency will cause you—motivate you, even force you—to think of a way to do it.

Because moments of necessity are often problematic and precarious, this proverbial expression is also used to mean that difficult situations can lead to new and inspired approaches; that some of the most creative solutions are developed in response to hardships that need to be overcome. Given this, people sometimes change the expression to adversity is the mother of invention. You may also hear or see it as necessity is the mother of all invention

If you think about some of the biggest inventions of the not-too-distant past, the phrase certainly makes sense. But you don’t even have to look to the past at all to see evidence of its wisdom: From the time the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading around the world, there became an incredibly urgent and immediate need for the creation of a vaccine to stop it. And indeed, at the time of this writing, scientists have, through ingenious thought and study and experiment, appeared to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine for the very first time.

Here are some example sentences using the saying necessity is the mother of invention:

  • When I accidentally locked myself in the office bathroom just before my meeting, I had to think fast. I took a bobby pin out of my hair and fashioned it into a sort of key. Sure enough, it worked! As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. 
  • On my first night of camping, I realized I had forgotten to pack a skillet to cook my food in over the fire. It was a real necessity is the mother of invention moment: I used the aluminum foil I brought and molded it into a makeshift pan.
  • Just before my son’s play at his school, his costume ripped backstage. I didn’t have enough time to sew it, so I grabbed a few paper clips and glue from his teacher’s desk and made it work. It didn’t look the best it could have looked, but hey, necessity is the mother of invention. 

The Origin of the Expression

As is often the case with the common phrases discussed here at The Word Counter, no one is entirely certain of the, ahem, “mother” of this proverb. It is sometimes attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato, but that seems to be a misattribution thanks to popular translations of his work The Republic. It doesn’t appear Plato said the phrase exactly, though he most likely shared the sentiment. In the late 1880s, the translator Benjamin Jowett translated Plato’s Republic, interpreting his words once as simply “our need will be the real creator” and another time a bit more flowery, as “the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention,” the reason why Plato is often credited with the saying.

The proverb would have already been known to Jowett when he incorporated it into his translation, as it was in common use in the English language at the time, and had been for centuries. (A similar proverb is said to have been used in medieval French.) In the 16th century, William Horman, headmaster at Eton and Winchester College during the early Tudor period, quoted the Latin phrase Mater artium necessitas, which translates to “the mother of invention is necessity,” in a book of proverbs called Vulgaria he created for students. A bit later, the English scholar and writer Roger Ascham said an expression nearly identical to the saying we know today. And in the early 17th century, the dramatist George Chapman used a very similar phrase in his play The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron. Records from the mid-1600s have army captain and author Richard Franck using the phrase exactly as we do now, in his Northern Memoirs, Calculated for the Meridian of Scotland: “Art imitates nature, and necessity is the mother of invention.”

What Is a Proverb?

The popular expression necessity is the mother of invention is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Learn the meanings of many more proverbs and other common sayings here.

Summary

The proverbial expression necessity is the mother of invention is used to say that we find new and inventive ways to do things when there is a strong and urgent need—a reason necessitating us—to do so. In other words, when you really need to do something, you’ll figure out a way. If there’s a problem you need to overcome, that hardship will force you to get creative, and you’ll come up with a solution. The phrase is often attributed to Plato, though that’s thought to be a misattribution. He may have shared the sentiment expressed in the proverb but not the exact words; it was a translator of Plato’s Republic who used a variation of the expression. We know for sure the saying dates to 1658.

PS: Did you know a rock band took their name from this proverb? It’s true: In the 1960s, when Frank Zappa took over The Soul Giants, he first renamed the group The Mothers and then The Mothers of Invention.