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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