Is the Future in Good Hands?

The president says the economic future of the United States depends on innovation. But what does that mean? History suggests it's a lot more than pure genius. Image (Image credit: stockxpert)

Modern humans may impatiently look forward to their robot servants and flying cars of the future, but true lessons about innovation come from the past. And history suggests that making a great leaps forward in science and technology requires much more than lone genius. Cooperation, financing and hard work are at the core of progress.

The question facing the United States right now: Is the country up to the task?

President Obama's recent call for a "new spirit of innovation" as a means to reinvigorate the economy and create lasting prosperity comes at a meaningful time when U.S. inventors have become celebrated individuals supported by society. This marks a huge contrast with much of the past, when many would-be inventors or lone geniuses likely died alone and unknown.

Now the U.S. and other modern nations pour huge resources into education and scientific research, which form the bedrock conditions for fostering innovation. They also host thriving private sectors which can commercialize inventions and transform novel ideas into useful, practical applications. But it took the industrial and scientific revolutions to bring about societal conditions friendly to innovation.

Made by … anonymous

Most inventions throughout human history came from anonymous inventors, according to experts in a 2004 report by the Lemelson-MIT Program and the National Science Foundation. Such inventions only slowly grew refined over long periods by different individuals and societies, with random chance playing a large role in whether they ever saw the light of day.

That changed as society began taking a more active role in fostering science and education.

For instance, the United States set its course for future innovation when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862. The law set allowed each state to establish endowments for new agricultural and engineering universities, which boosted the number of engineering schools from six to 126 between 1862 and 1917.

U.S. engineering's expansion also coincided with a surge in industrialization and economic growth following the Civil War. The Lemelson-MIT report ultimately credits the government's law with laying the foundation for much U.S. innovation, and perhaps boosting economic prosperity as well.

The other large government action supporting U.S. innovation came after World War II, when the GI Bill "educated at least two generations of engineers and scientists" by granting veterans a college education, according to the Lemelson-MIT report. Those GI Bill produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, and 67,000 doctors.

Culture of wild ideas

Just as society has collectively cultivated innovation, modern inventors can also pool their resources.

Many successful companies have corporate cultures which foster open communication and provide opportunities to network with smart individuals. Google represents a prime example with its "20 percent time" policy, which permits employees to work on their own creative projects and enlist the support of colleagues.

Another private outfit called Intellectual Ventures draws on the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other top entrepreneurs, as well as the brightest scientists and engineers, to brainstorm wild new ideas as a group. The company then patents the best ideas to sell off as intellectual property.

This notion of having legal ownership over ideas has represented a powerful societal step toward fostering innovation. However, experts warn of a delicate balance between protecting intellectual property and not choking off the free flow of ideas.

"There is a growing tendency to reward all creativity with protection of intellectual property," stated the Lemelson-MIT report. "Hence what were once islands of protection in an ocean of public domain are now large continents of protection, with only lakes of free access."

Tomorrow's innovators

If the federal government needs new direction for future innovation, it could look to the future innovators. The 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found that 43 percent of U.S. teens want President Obama to focus on the energy crisis, and 33 percent would like to see a focus on medical discoveries.

The survey also showed that 37 percent of teens believe that gas-powered cars represent the most endangered invention of modern times. That may reflect a youthful confidence in the pace of innovation moving forward, as U.S. students have grown up in a society that strongly supports its inventors.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," said Alan Kay, a computer scientist who worked at Apple and Hewlett-Packard.

Modern inventors have some of the best advantages at their disposal to follow that advice. But whether each nation or society chooses to continue encouraging the best conditions for innovation remains an open question.

As history has shown, scientific breakthroughs and bold new inventions don't typically occur as an individual flash of genius. Instead, they rely heavily upon the resources which society invests in educating and supporting the next generation of innovators.

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Editor's Note: This article is the last in a series this week about the history and future of innovation in science and technology that makes life better and more productive.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.