It was noticed before Altshuller that engineers in different fields of engineering sometimes independently solve the very same problems. But he was Altshuller who first blew this observation out of proportion. It is nowadays that nobody is surprised to hear that engineers at big companies spend more time on "re-inventing one and the same thing anew" than on inventing something really new, that the required solution is much easier to re-discover than to fish it out of the mounts of information distributed amongst various funds, archives and libraries. But to say in the 1940s that most inventions are in fact re-inventions of the "wheel", that there is just a small amount of basic conflicts to which all problems can be reduced and that inventors solve the same conflicts over and over again was a revolutionary and a groundbreaking event. And to say that these conflicts can be solved with the help of an even smaller number of principles (namely, just 40 principles) was an unprecedented audacity.
Creativity and Creativity's laws lay hid in night
God said:"Let Altshuller be !" - and all was light
In the flash of an instant the phenomenon of engineering creativity which had been deemed unknowable for generations had been converted into something very simple. And that was a step in the right direction: from "unknowable" to the first successful simplistic model, to a more complex and accurate model, to even more complex and more accurate model, etc.
Unfortunately subsequent steps were not as revolutionary as the first one and were lost on many TRIZniks. To this day they promote the simplistic view: despite there are myriads of technical systems, the number of really distinct engineering problems is small (39 x 39 = 1521, as of 1973), and the number of successful solutions is even smaller (40 as of 1973). For example, the recent article by Darrell Mann re-iterates this concept in the fine English.
These people cannot put Altshuller's first revolutionary step into prospective. They do not understand that it was like discovery that all multitude of words consist of just 30-40 sounds (letters). This did not mean that there were just 30-40 words in the human vocabulary (although some people hardly use more). This meant that all words can be composed of 30-40 sounds.
Similarly, all successful engineering solutions are not reducible to just 40 principles. They consist of them as words consist of 30-40 letters.
Altshuller made this clarification (or second step) in the early 1970s. All successful engineering solutions, according to him, are complexes of 40 principles.
Initially the complexes were simple - just principle + anti-principle; But in 1975 they became more complex and took the shape of The Standard Successful Inventive Solutions.
Darrell Mann et al missed this development. Let's correct him. There are myriads of really distinct successful solutions, not just a small number. They might consist of a small number of elementary successful solutions but no more than that.