When I first got acquainted with TRIZ, 40 principles made a repulsive impression on me. My mathematical upbringing rebelled against them. Too many principles. In exact sciences people try to reduce the number of fundamental principles to the minimum. And here the intent was the opposite: to multiply the number of principles.
Only years later I learned about a theory that creative persons are subdivided into "mathematicians" and "programmers"1. "Mathematicians" try to reduce the number of principles, to derive everything from as small number of principles as possible. And "programmers", conversely, try to multiply principles. A person does not have to be a real programmer to fall into "programmer" category. Freud, for example, was a "programmer" from the standpoint of this theory. Altshuller definitely was a "programmer" too.
The philosophical debate about whose outlook ("mathematicians'" or "programmers'") is more scientific and more relevant is beyond the scope of this article. However, it would be interesting to speculate about what caused Altshuller to join the ranks of "programmers" rather than "mathematicians".
The 1920s and 1930s were the times of exploring the power of stereotypes in various areas of human activity. The Russian theoretician of the art of acting, Stanislavsky, came up with the idea that "a good actor is he who mastered 300 stereotype ways of acting, whereas the bad one is he who mastered just 2-3". The Russian-Jewish authors Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov made sure that the idea of power of big sets of stereotypes did not get lost on Soviet people. In their timeless piece "The Gold Calf" they hilariously popularized the idea on the example of the administrative innovation by the novel's character Polikhayev, CEO of "Hercules" trust:
Polikhayev stopped signing documents long time ago. Instead he would fetch a rubber stamp with his signature engraved in it and would press it against the paper. He liked the process so much that this caused him to wish to expand the method by further putting on the rubber not his signature only but the most common phrases too. This is how the first stereotype rubber stamps came into being:
"No objections. Polikhayev"; "Agree. Polikhayev"; "Nice idea. Polikhayev"; "Do it. Polikhayev"
Having tested these stamps in practice, Polikhayev came to a conclusion that they significantly simplified his work and hence required further development. Before long a new set of stamps appeared with more complex notes and orders engraved in them:
"Reprimand in the letter to employees. Polikhayev";
"Record the reprimand in the personal file. Polikhayev";
"Transfer to a remote branch. Polikhayev";
"Terminate without severance pay. Polikhayev";
"Do not waste my time. Polikhayev".
When the number of stereotype stamps reached 36, the set became so universal that rendered creativity in composing administrative letters and orders needless. There was no need in Polikhayev anymore. His secretary would easily identify the relevant stamp and press it against the paper instead of him. "The rubber excellently replaced the man. The rubber Polikhayev was not worse than Polikhayev live."
The legions of Soviet youngsters read and laughed through "The Gold Calf" and Altshuller was one of them. Many were so excited that tried to apply Polikhayev's approach to their respective areas. Altshuller told that one of his acquaintances even run once into him in the library with exclamations: "Polikhayev had 36 standard stamps. And I want to have 36 standard ..." (I do not remember what - YK).
In this atmosphere of popularity of "The Gold Calf" and its characters, the idea of 36 Standard Stereotype Principles of Invention was floating in the air. I bet this is how Altshuller's 40 Principles came into being.