Plexus ponderings: Can a deep dive into history guide innovation?

Every so often, Plexus marketing communications manager Mike Wilkening, a long-time professional journalist who joined the company in June, will author a first-person piece on his experience learning the insurance brokerage business. This is the second installment in the series.  I'm fascinated about what can be insured. The answer seems to be this: "Anything, really."

The other day, as I pondered the plight of a now-jobless NFL quarterback who's had some well-documented punctuality issues, I thought of this: could someone purchase a policy protecting her or him in the event of an alarm clock malfunction? (Recall the "Seinfeld" episode about Kramer's hot tub motor blowing the electricity to Jerry's apartment, causing marathoner Jean-Paul to oversleep.)

So I went to Google to find my alarm answer. But I never did get to where I was looking.

Instead, I stumbled upon a message board thread at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, which was discussing old coin-operated clocks that were distributed by various insurance agencies, among other businesses, with Great Britain one market in which they appeared. The idea: put in a few coins toward an insurance premium to keep the clock running. The insurance agencies would collect the coins at various intervals, put the clock back together, and on went the cycle.

Here's more on the topic from "The Story of Time," an interesting blog on the topic of ... well, time:

In 1954 the Time Savings Clock Company Limited and Metamec of Dereham [England] applied for a patent for a clock which would only go when coins were placed in a slot in the top of the case. Two florins weekly it says on the coin slot in the case top. For people on insurance schemes with companies like the Co-operative in the 1950s, four shillings was quite a lot on money to put aside each week.  The idea of the clock was to help people hold on to their money to pay the premium each week.


Now, of course, the coin-operated clock's days are long, long gone, and they're not coming back. Furthermore, the idea of paying to tell time seems a little ... punitive. I don't think that would go over well today. The social media outrage alone would create enough energy to light a city.

Nevertheless, I'm struck by the creativity of this idea. Generally speaking, we can all agree that insurance is a good idea, and that letting policies lapse can be a very poor one. Furthermore, the goal of disciplined, incremental saving should always be in fashion, especially with people living longer and longer than ever.

The role of the insurance broker should promote the common good, educating employers and employees about the best benefit choices available to them. That's our responsibility, one we take very seriously at Plexus. Insurers heed a similar call.

All the while, our industry -- carriers and brokers alike -- faces the need to continually innovate on all levels. I could drone on and on about how technology has changed the business, but you know this already, as you're reading this on your phone while searching for the WiFi signal at Panera.

But as I ponder innovation, I keep thinking back to that coin-operated clock. Here was something that a) filled a need, b) promoted saving for insurance (a nice idea) and c) showed some real ingenuity.

No matter the era, these are all things for which to strive.

So as we all seek the new Big Idea, here's my question: are there old, dusty ones that could be repurposed? What other industry innovations long since replaced by others might have use today?

Maybe we all need to take Insurance History 101 -- and see where it takes us.