They used to make movies about great American inventors -- Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers. I guess they still do, if you include "Doc" Emmett Brown from the "Back to the Future" trilogy.
Nowadays, "inventors" conjure up images of four-eyed geeks recharging their perpetual motion machines rather than as earnest champions of Yankee ingenuity. Companies don't "invent" anything anymore, they "innovate" or do "new product development." One of America's great heritages has devolved into either a parody or a bureaucracy.
"My mother wouldn't call me an inventor because it isn't prestigious enough," says David Kelley, who runs a small industrial design and new product development group in Palo Alto, Calif., that averages a patent a month. "I wouldn't call myself an inventor because it's too presumptuous."
"The culture of invention in America today stinks," asserts Jacob Rabinow, a highly regarded independent inventor who holds 267 patents and authored the amusingly informative "Inventing For Fun and Profit."
"We have a culture that knows how to recognize and reward a good basketball player but we no longer have a culture that can recognize good invention. This is where we're now falling apart."
Sounds bleak. The consensus is that the future Chester Carlsons and Edwin Lands aren't furtively working in their basement labs to invent the next xerography or instant photography -- they're in the bowels of some Fortune 500 behemoth or sweating their brains out in some venture capital-funded Silicon Valley start-up. Today's problems and technologies are too difficult for independent inventors to handle on their own, conventional wisdom says. The era of the garage shop tinkerer -- someone who can build a breakthrough in the basement -- is dead, killed by complexity.
That's all nonsense. In fact, the odds are that this country is about to witness an explosion of invention in the 1990s. There's going to be a renaissance in tinkering and fooling around with neat ideas. That doesn't mean America is about to enter a new Golden Age of Invention with a bunch of Edisons, Bells and Steinmetzes waltzing to the patent office. What it means is that we're slowly and inexorably in the process of building a new "inventions infrastructure" that virtually guarantees that more sharp people are going to come up with clever solutions to difficult problems. In other words, things are going to get better.
Why? Because the tools are getting better.
"For a lot of these problems," says Kelley, "the complexity went up, so we formed different types of groups to handle it. Now the tools have caught up with the complexity so you don't need a room full of engineers to solve the problem -- you can often do it by yourself or with one or two others."
People think of a personal computer as a device that processes words or crunches numbers. That's true -- but it's also a box that does a wizard job of streamlining complexity into manageable byte-sized chunks. Consider desktop publishing -- personal computers and laser printers melded into digital production systems. In a few short years, it has transformed the design and economies of books, newspapers and magazines. Virtually anyone can design and produce a top-notch-looking publication, if they care to. The barriers to entry, as the economists call it, have been breached.
"Desktop publishing is concerned with two- dimensional objects: signs, posters, playing cards, magazines, newsletters, etc.," says Kelley. "Change the objects to three dimensions and you've got a whole new opportunity. Just as easily, things can spring up just as fast."
Well, software that lets people model ideas in three dimensions is slowly seeping into the marketplace. Instead of static images on paper, people can build dynamic representations of ideas -- and test them on the computer. People can see how things fit -- or don't fit -- together. That added dimension makes all the difference in the world. Spice that software with some artificial intelligence and expert systems to offer some guidance in, say, mechanical engineering and electrical wiring and, poof, you've got a system that breaches the barriers of entry to invention.
Just as we've seen an explosion of desktop publishing, we're going to see the emergence of desktop invention. Necessity will remain the mother of invention -- but the personal computer will become the midwife.
"I think it has the potential to do that," says Leif Soderberg, a principal at McKinsey & Co. who heads the consulting firm's automotive practice and has extensively studied the management of engineering teams. "The design process today is not wildly different than it was 20 years ago. But where the necessary skills may have resided in five or six individuals, with enabling tools they may reside in only one or two."
Indeed, Soderberg points out that even the largest companies increasingly rely on small, semiautonomous teams to perform the necessary design and engineering -- or should I say "inventing"? -- of new products. Technology is driving this trend. Kelley's company recently designed and built a blood-typing system "that involves 30-plus motors, laser optical detection systems, some heavy chemistry and over 600 parts," says Kelley. "We did it with five or six people relying heavily on our desktops."
Without the technology to serve as both a tool to manage complexity and a device to integrate the different disciplines, the product couldn't have been built in time without at least a dozen people. And that's a state-of-the-art technology.
Just as people used to tinker with the toolbox and workbench in the garage, the personal computer -- armed with a new generation of modeling software -- is going to become a conceptual lathe: power tools for the mind. Just as people today bring a specially formatted disk to the print shop to be turned into a beautiful document, tomorrow's desktop inventors will drop their disks off at a machine shop and come back the next day to pick up their prototypes, be they weird gadgets or medical devices or automobile enhancements.
Will most of these inventions be useless? Of course! Most desktop publications are poorly designed, most 35mm photos are poorly shot and most home movies are light years short of "America's Funniest Home Videos" quality. That's not the point. The technology gets people interested. It creates new awareness and expectations. For some people, it's just a hobby -- for others, it becomes a serious avocation. When that happens, invention becomes part of the pop culture vernacular again -- with apologies to Doc Brown. Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.