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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME

The Incubator of Ideas
If inventiveness is not a universally shared skill—and like it or not, it isn’t—we all at least start off with the same piece of basic equipment, which is to say a brain. The most plodding kinds of creative thought—the ones everyone can manage—are the kinds that draw inevitable conclusions from obvious clues. Wood burns, stones don’t. What are you going to build your fireplace out of? Crops grow better where manure has been dropped. How about saving some up and spreading it around?

But there are the subtler kinds of connections too—the kinds that lie about in plain sight but are usually missed. Milkmaids tended not to get smallpox, but they did get cowpox on their hands—the result of so much up-close work with cattle. Might infection with one illness protect you from the other? It seemed that way to Edward Jenner, and in 1796 he used that insight to invent the first smallpox vaccine. Flies seemed strangely drawn to the urine of a dog whose pancreas had been removed for study. Might there be something in the urine—sugar, say—that was responsible? That was the best guess of German researchers Joseph von Mering and Oscar Winkowski, who in 1889 discovered the link between the pancreas and diabetes.

“When insights like this come to you, you’re usually confident right away that they’re correct,” says Mark Beeman, a professor of neuro­science at Northwestern University in Illinois. “That’s because your unconscious mind has connected several loosely linked puzzle pieces. They only get passed up to your consciousness if everything fits well.”

In most cases, the TIME poll found, people agree that not every­one has the creative chops to make these kinds of ingenious connections. On average, 65% of respondents thought inventors were special people and only 35% thought anyone could be one. Among adult members of the millennial cohort—people born from 1980 to the early 2000s—the figure jumped a bit, to 42%, possibly because of the factory-­loaded cockiness of the young, possibly too because so many of the ways we create are Internet-­centric, and millennials tend to be better in that medium than anyone else.

Country by country, the numbers changed considerably. Americans hewed pretty closely to the global average, with 62% saying inventors were special people. But in Russia—a country that despite its 70 years as a supposedly classless society has always been ruled by elites—the number soared to 90%. In South Korea, one of the creative powerhouses of East Asia, there was no such humility, with only 32% thinking inventors have a special quality that others don’t.

Similar disparities emerged when people were asked whether, regardless of how special they thought inventors were, they themselves might be inventors. Among South Koreans, 94% said yes, they were inventors, compared with 26% of Americans and 33% of Russians. That last one is a delightful paradox, since it means one-third of all Russians consider themselves part of a minority that they also believe can accommodate only 1 out of 10 of them.

The most consistently high scores in the tricky could-I-be-an-inventor category were among the powerful business decision­makers in emerging countries—72% in Indonesia, 67% in India, 62% in Brazil. That’s not hard to understand. When you’re a big player in an economy that’s growing fast and has room to continue, you are probably already doing a lot of creating. It’s the only way to survive. “The culture makes a big difference,” says Notre Dame University’s David Watson, a personality psychologist who studies creativity. “The extent to which inventiveness is encouraged is critical.”

(MORE: The TIME Invention Poll)

The Roots of Genius
There are deeper—and far ­older—factors than the current state of its national economy that influence any one country’s ability to be creative. A vibrant educational system complete with globally competitive universities would seem to be a threshold requirement for an inventive culture. But that’s by no means what everybody believes. Only 32% of respondents in emerging nations and 23% in developed nations said education was a sine qua non for invention. The highest scorers in that category were Brazil, South Africa and Kenya, at 38%, 43% and 38%, respectively; the low scorers included Indonesia, South Korea and Singapore, at 20%, 19% and 18%. That seems precisely the opposite of what it should be, given that the last three countries have long histories of prioritizing education and the first three not so much. But the explanation may lie in the kinds of educational systems East Asia often fosters.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3