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The use of the term "innovation" has changed substantially over the last 200 years. Prior to the 20th century, the term was uncommon in English, and it was used either to refer to the description or research study of the beneficial arts or to mention technical education, as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (chartered in 1861). The term "technology" increased to prominence in the 20th century in connection with the 2nd Industrial Revolution. The term's significances changed in the early 20th century when American social researchers, beginning with Thorstein Veblen, equated ideas from the German idea of into "innovation." In German and other European languages, a distinction exists between technik and technologie that is absent in English, which generally translates both terms as "innovation." By the 1930s, "technology" referred not only to the study of the commercial arts but to the industrial arts themselves.

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Scientists and engineers usually prefer to specify innovation as used science, rather than as the important things that individuals make and utilize. More just recently, scholars have obtained from European theorists of "method" to extend the significance of innovation to various forms of important factor, as in Foucault's work on technologies of the self (techniques de soi). Dictionaries and scholars have actually provided a range of meanings. The deals a meaning of the term: "using science in market, engineering, and so on, to create useful things or to resolve issues" and "a device, piece of devices, technique, and so on, that is created by innovation." Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 "Genuine World of Technology" lecture, gave another meaning of the concept; it is "practice, the method we do things around here." The term is frequently utilized to suggest a specific field of technology, or to describe high innovation or just customer electronics, rather than innovation as a whole.