The Spark of Invention

A Time/Qualcomm poll reveals a world of opinions about who inventors are, how they do their work and which countries used to be—and will be—the most inventive

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Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME

Be grateful you never had to take a nap with Thomas Edison. It’s not like Edison slept all that much; by his own account he was good for four, maybe five, hours a night, setting aside at least 18 per day for work. That made sense. If you’re going to leave the world a list of inventions that includes the lightbulb, the movie camera, the cylinder phonograph, the disc phonograph, advanced fluoro­scopy, a commercial stock ticker, a vote tabulator and more, you’d best put in a long day.

All the same, a man does need his rest, and Edison was not above the occasional catnap—provided it was not devoted solely to sleep. Like most people, he noticed that insights and brainstorms often occur at the edges of sleep—when the border guard of the prefrontal cortex is going off duty and the more bohemian precincts like the occipital lobe, where imagery is processed, are free to play. But those insights can be fleeting, lost forever if the sleep that allowed them to exist in the first place overtakes you before you can wake up and write them down. So Edison would nap sitting up in a chair, with his arms draped over the sides and a steel ball in each hand. On the floor on either side of the chair was a metal pan. If he fell too deeply asleep, the balls would fall with a clatter, awakening him in time for him to rescue any useful thought before it flashed back into the cognitive vapor.

In his own way, Edison figured out how to beat the clock just a little, wringing a few more productive minutes out of days already packed with them. For his efforts, he is remembered by history not just as an inventor, or even as a great inventor, but as the very notion of inventiveness made flesh. The TIME Invention Poll, in cooperation with Qualcomm, asked more than 10,000 people in 17 countries to name as many inventors as they could, and Edison was the overwhelming favorite. Thomas Alva of tiny Milan, Ohio, was mentioned first 27% of the time. That number is more impressive than it seems: the laggards who finished second, third, fourth and fifth—at 9%, 5%, 4% and 3%—were Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, ­Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.

It’s easy enough to recognize a ­prolific inventor when we see one; if nothing else, just count the patents (Edison had 1,093). But it’s far harder to define what the act of invention is—how it springs into being, how it visits some of us and not others, how an idea that seems so obvious after the invention has been conceived and built was so opaque, so elusive before. Inventiveness can hit when we’re thinking about inventing, or it can come in sideways, flashing brilliantly on the periphery when we’re focused on something else.

(MORE: The 25 Best Inventions of 2013)

While that kind of comet strike makes for nice tale-telling (Newton’s falling apple, Archimedes’ rising bathwater, Philo Farnsworth’s back-and-forth plow path, which gave him the idea for the scanning motion of the electron beam in a TV tube), invention is just as often the result of mere doggedness, even cussedness, grinding away at a problem until it finally yields. Jonas Salk invented the first successful polio vaccine, and you can follow exactly how he did it, step by step, experiment by experiment and year by year, in the 573 file boxes—spanning 316 linear ft. (96 m) and containing tens of thousands of documents—that make up his collection of personal papers at the University of California at San Diego. That ain’t inspiration. That’s sweat.

Mysterious too is not just the how of invention but the where. The U.S. is manifestly the most inventive country of the past century, a fact backed not only by the sheer number of innovations that have poured from American labs and minds (the airplane, the zipper, the personal computer, the telephone, the mass-market car, the Internet, the oil well, the motor­cycle, the laser, the smoke detector) but also by popular opinion. Among poll respondents around the world, 36% called the past century the American century—at least when it comes to invention—nearly doubling second-­place Japan’s 19% and blowing the doors off Russia, the U.S.’s old Cold War rival, with its tiny 2%.

But what accounts for the U.S.’s success? Was it the simple arithmetic of land plus resources plus time? The bracing combination of town-hall democracy and all-in capitalism? The fact that a young country begins the race lean and quick, without the traditions, institutions and other cultural harnesses that slow down the competition? And what about now, as the U.S. enters what often seems to be a cranky, complacent middle age and looks overseas at ancient cultures that have reinvented themselves—­China, India, Korea, the 5,000-year-old new kids on the block? lt’s no coincidence that poll respondents saw China as the rising economic power of the 21st century, with the U.S. maintaining only a tiny lead in the global rankings—24% to 23%.

The TIME/Qualcomm poll is a deep-dive attempt to explore these and other issues, not only around the world and across cultures but across economic strata too. The 17 sampled countries are divided into two silos: seven so-called mature markets (including the U.S., Germany, South Korea and Singapore) and 10 emerging markets (including Kenya, Russia, China, India, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates). The 10,197-strong sample group is sliced at another angle too, divided among 6,133 middle-income adults, 2,691 well-educated and high-income “broad elites” and 1,373 “business decisionmakers,” people who run at least one department in a large company with over $10 million in global sales.

All the subjects were asked the same set of questions: What is an inventor—or an invention, for that matter? Do you consider yourself an inventor? Are inventors born or made? What are the most important inventions of all time? Are inventions usually the result of collaboration, or are they the work of a single brilliant rogue? Does your country protect the fruits of invention? Not a single one of those questions has a firm answer, but merely asking them can cast invention in a fresher light. “To invent,” said Edison, “you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Maybe, but as the Time poll illustrates, you need other things too.

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7 comments
argieguy
argieguy

How come no mention to Israel?? The country where most of the latest technology developments have taken place...

They are called the Start-up Nation for something...

Not even taken the time to include them on the polls.

Would have been nice to see what they think about this issue.

RobertoKJ
RobertoKJ

Its a remarkable poll, I come from a Developing country Ecuador, and as much as you said, we tend to believe that rigorous  higher education plus  Patent-protective policies are the key factors of development, or as I would like to call it from now on; Inventiveness.

PocoHontas
PocoHontas

Patriotic TiME magazine claims the US was the most inventive nation of the 20th century. They conveniently overlook that for most of the 20th century it was Germany that led the Science Nobel Prize count; Americans caught up with Germans only in the 1970s (despite the US being much bigger).

TIME will never admit that for each American invention one can find three bigger truly fundamental inventions from Germany, for example:

First usable combustion engines (Otto, Diesel), first practical cars (Benz), first jetplane (von Ohain), first nuclear power (Hahn), first program-controlled computers (Zuse), most of modern physics, including the theory of general relativity (Einstein) and quantum physics (Planck), radio waves (Hertz), first TV patents (Nipkow) and TV screens (Braun), X-rays (Roentgen), first rockets in space (von Braun), population explosion (driven by Haber-Bosch process), and thousands of other essential inventions. Not mentioning older world-changing German inventions such as the printing press.

TIME celebrates Edison but doesn't mention that for most of his patents Edison just put his name on inventions of his employees (lots of literature on this).

To solidify its claims, TIME conducts a survey of 18-24 old kids (!) who think the cell phone is the biggest invention ever, although it is basically a small scale computer (Zuse) using radio waves (Hertz) for communication.

Sure, many of these kids don't care for history, and don't know that they wouldn't even exist without the Haber-Bosch process for making artificial fertiliser, often called the most influential invention of the 20th century, because half of the world's population would die without it. A thousand times more important than the cell phone!


TIME's poll is as valuable as a poll asking little boys whether their dad is the strongest man in the world. Many will say yes. But sometimes you better ask experts.

PrachU
PrachU

Ya the author seems a very patriotic  American and apparently doesnt like tough EU competitors like Germany & UK, hardly even mentioning and taking digs at arch rivals Russia wheresoever possible..


PeterJamesHerz
PeterJamesHerz

Notable German inventions and discoveries: nuclear weapons, genetics, binary, computers, mp3s, automobiles/engines, printing press, photographic chemicals, rocket flight, assault rifle, cocaine, jet engines, uranium, quantum physics, mammalian ovum, comics, set theory, bicycles, general relativity, light bulb, watch, telegraph, fax machine, aspirin, radio waves, TV, linguistics (Grimm), nuclear chemistry, video signals/digital recording (Kietz), calculus, wing/aviation, Mach speed, archaeology (Troy), medical x-rays, sound-on-film, neon signs (Geissler tube), first globe model (Erdapfel, 1492), radar, submarine, telephone, and modern optics.  Its funny though that according to this article America takes the trophy? lol

AnumakondaJagadeesh
AnumakondaJagadeesh

Outstanding article on Inventor and Inventions.


Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India

khi.mah.uk
khi.mah.uk

Most inventions are just combinations of technologies. Take the Vacuum cleaner, just a bag and a fan. If you join a bag and a fan you sort of get a floating flag. If you arrange it in a specific way you get a Vacuum which forces dirt into the bag.

Today, it seems obvious to us but back then it was not. Had there been some sort of similar idea in Industrial use then it would not have been patentable. i.e. a Industrial saw collecting machine employing a similar principle.

Today, the Patent process has become pathetic due to a select few stupid pathetic corporations that seem to think everything is innovative. For example if some process sends Voice and Text over a network in a certain way then the addition of Video using the same principle would not be innovative.

The same goes for when some principle that works on the PC is applied to mobile phones. Today’s mobiles are just a combination of a computer and a telephone. Even a poor quality engineer knows his field and is able to apply techniques from PCs to mobiles. The mere fact of just taking something from the PC and putting it onto a mobile is not innovative. If some skilful technique is used for miniaturization then that may be patentable. The miniaturization technique only!

The whole system has become unworkable because of a select few stupid pathetic corporations!