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The use of the term "innovation" has altered significantly over the last 200 years. Before the 20th century, the term was unusual in English, and it was used either to refer to the description or research study of the helpful arts or to point to technical education, as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (chartered in 1861). The term "innovation" increased to prominence in the 20th century in connection with the Second Industrial Transformation. The term's significances altered in the early 20th century when American social scientists, beginning with Thorstein Veblen, translated concepts from the German idea of into "technology." In German and other European languages, a difference exists between technik and technologie that is absent in English, which generally equates both terms as "technology." By the 1930s, "technology" referred not just to the study of the industrial arts but to the commercial arts themselves.

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Researchers and engineers usually prefer to define technology as used science, rather than as the things that individuals make and use. More just recently, scholars have actually borrowed from European theorists of "technique" to extend the significance of innovation to numerous kinds of important reason, as in Foucault's deal with innovations of the self (strategies de soi). Dictionaries and scholars have used a variety of meanings. The offers a definition of the term: "using science in market, engineering, and so on, to develop beneficial things or to solve problems" and "a machine, piece of equipment, approach, and so on, that is developed by innovation." Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 "Real World of Innovation" lecture, gave another meaning of the concept; it is "practice, the way we do things around here." The term is often utilized to imply a specific field of innovation, or to describe high technology or simply customer electronic devices, rather than technology as a whole.