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The Engine of Invention

Author John Cech
Air Date 8/11/2003

The Engine of Invention Transcript

We Americans pride ourselves on being a nation of tinkerers, folks who always seemed to be out in the barn inventing things — like the telephone, airplanes, or the computer. To spark this inventive spirit in young people, we’ve encouraged them to read biographies of the great inventors like Franklin, Edison, and Carver. But for many years, the only book about the inventions of children that you could find was Edward de Bono’s 1970 foray into the truly imaginative things a group of actual youngsters could cook up when challenged with a real life problem: create a device to give a dog a walk. The result was the delightful Dog-Exercising Machine, which is long out of print but well worth looking for in used editions that are easily available on-line.

Now, though, we have growing number of books about inventions by children to inspire young readers with the accomplishments of their peers. Among the best of these are Tom Tucker’s BrainstormTwenty Stories of American Kid Inventors, which surveys a wide range of child inventors, like one chilly Chester Greenwood who discovered earmuffs in 1873. To add to this list of primary sources, there are Don Wulffson’s two volumes, The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle and The Kid who Invented the Trampoline; and for some healthy debunking of gender stereotypes, a must read is Catherine Thimmesh’s Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. An important facet of the inventive process is the dimension of accident, that sometimes has led to some pretty interesting discoveries — like silly putty. For a look at thesetry Mistakes That Worked and Accidents May Happen, both by Charlotte Jones and find out how even a nap can affect the course of history — especially when it comes to bread. Now, too, there are prizes like those for the annual contest of Invent America, which is meant to encourage practical, creative thinking among our country’s youth. Take a look at their website at, and you’ll find an outline of the program, plus a list of the winning inventions from last year, which include a habitat for butterflies that won’t damage their fragile wings, an electronic, global positioning chip that can be placed in a fire-fighter’s or soldier’s boot, and my favorite — a little hammock for the shopping cart, for a tired toddler to snooze in while mom or dad wheels them up and down the aisles. It looks like that spirit is alive and well and still tinkering out in the garage.

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