Inventing Modern America: Book Launch and Panel Discussion with Lemelson-Prize Inventors

November 28, 2001

Originally published November 28, 2001 on

Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse (MIT Press, 2002) profiles 35 inventors who helped to shape the modern world.

Lydon posed the question: “Who is the God of inventors? Who has ‘Joe Dimaggio’ standing in the world of invention?”

For Steve Wozniak, inventor of the Apple II personal computer and co-founder of Apple Computer, Inc., the answer ranged from Bob Dylan to his father, an engineer, to the Tom Swift Jr. books, which inspired him to get a ham radio license while he was still in the fifth grade.

What was perhaps most inspiring about those books? That they reflect “the inventor’s life of not really having a job,” he said. The rewards of invention for him are intrinsic (“in the brain”) not extrinsic as in financial rewards. Indeed, for Wozniak, the marketplace “does not always reinforce creative solutions”–it tends to encourage monopolization by protection of market share, among other things.

The names Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo and Aristotle were evoked. Inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil said Edison’s influence reigns as a “student of technology trends,” something that Kurzweil also says of himself in his role as futurist and anticipator of paradigm shifts in computing and other fields. Kurzweil also cited MIT’s Marvin Minsky as an early influence and mentor.

Robert Langer, biomedical engineer and pioneer of drug delivery systems, and nanotechnologist Brian Hubert cited less common influences–Dr. Judah Volkman, a Harvard cancer researcher, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, respectively.

When asked what separates the engineer or scientist from the inventor, the ability to dream was a common theme. Referring to himself as “the dreamer,” mouse inventor and visionary Doug Englebart reflected on a moment years ago while he was at ARPA (the predecessor to DARPA), where he was called “just a dreamer.” The speaker didn’t realize, in Englebart’s eyes, that dreaming (and thus inventing) is “serious hard work.” For Kurzweil, it is precisely the journey from dream to positively impacting the lives of others, the “leap from the blackboard,” that not only brings inspiration but also distinguishes the inventor.

The ability to deal with failure looms large with these inventors. For Langer, the capacity to persist through failure is what separates the scientist from the inventor. For Kurzweil, failure doesn’t exist–it is “success deferred.”

The ability to move from one knowledge domain to another deftly, without specializing in one specific area, is a strength, although not always seen as such, that is another hallmark of inventors. “Inventors have a broad range of interests,” noted Hubert, and the seeming naivete that inventors may bring to areas in which they are not experts is precisely what allows them to see beyond constraints. Wozniak shares this perspective. For him, the inventor “still has the child in him.”

Mixed views about the rewards of inventing were heard from the panelists and audience alike, since the other edge of reward can be seen as responsibility for the innovations that shape the world. As Kurzweil put it, they could lead to either “promise or peril,” depending upon who wields the technology.

For Kurzweil, money for an inventor is like “clay to a sculptor”: the most necessary resource for rendering dreams into actuality. However, Englebart questioned the notion that the only climate in which invention can thrive is a market-driven system that ultimately rewards inventors when their ideas result in commercial viability. Englebart envisions “social inventions” that address and prioritize burning issues, such as new threats from innovation and technology. “Can’t we adapt political institutions…before the technology arrives?” he asked.

And what do these inventors dream about? Hubert sees a world in which all objects gain intelligence through embedded micro (and nano) technologies, where you can go shopping without checking out groceries because they have already been charged to your bank account by the time you walk out the door. But these embedded technologies may come with a price: if nanodevices attached to living cells in your body wirelessly transmit genetic information quickly and easily, the information may be available not only to you and your doctor but to insurance companies as well.

For Kurzweil, the pervasive decentralization of the technological infrastructure seen in peer to peer applications over a vastly expanding Internet–as well as the shrinking of fuel cell technology and the increasing use of virtual reality in the area of business–will allow humans greater and greater freedom from physical constraints and physical threats (such as skyscrapers, as recent events have shown). But ethical issues that these new technologies raise–privacy, to name one–are very serious. In Kurzweil’s words, “the technology is too important to leave to the technologists.”

An anecdote by Wozniak also focused on this point. He illustrated how the innovation of the personal computer was partly due to not-so-technical novices who user-tested the early prototypes to insure a more “human” interface. Both Englebart and Wozniak dream of increasingly more human interfaces with technology as well as more humane technology serves human needs–not the other way around.

But why invent? What greater goal does innovation serve? Beyond practical necessity, Kurzweil extolled the artistic value of invention–“Beethoven didn’t need to invent the 5th Symphony.” Steve Wozniak asked the question differently: “Isn’t the purpose … just to make people smile more and frown less?”

Inventing Modern America profiles 35 inventors who exemplify the rich technological creativity of the United States over the past century. They have helped transform our homes, our healthcare, our work, our environment, and the way we travel and communicate.

The inventors profiled include such well-known figures as George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, and Steve Wozniak, as well as unsung technological pioneers such as Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, and Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the first implantable cardiac pacemaker.

The well-illustrated book should create excitement about invention through the personal stories of these American scientists, technologists, and researchers. It is accessible enough to engage high school students yet wide-ranging and interesting enough to appeal to anyone who has ever wondered where microwave ovens and traffic lights come from.