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TECHNOLOGY: American Ingenuity: Still Going Strong

10 minute read

The nations of Europe, Asia and Africa mostly owe their existences to accidents of geography or language, the fortunes of war or interference from imperial powers. But the U.S., to a very great extent, is the product of its citizens’ own ingenuity. Faced with an untamed wilderness and distances their European forebears could barely comprehend, the settlers who came to colonize the new land responded by becoming a nation of tinkerers, backyard inventors and, ultimately, technologists. Now, lacking a wilderness but confronted with challenges as great as those faced by their ancestors, mid-20th century Americans are responding similarly. In university and corporate laboratories, in basement and attic workshops, they are busy trying to invent their way out of an energy crisis, the worst recession in a generation and, toughest of all, what appears to be a global shortage of raw materials and finished products of many kinds.

From the time it was first founded, the U.S. has been the world’s foremost innovator. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin turned the South into a profitable agricultural kingdom that could rival the industrial North. Cyrus H. McCormick’s reaper enabled farmers to transform the Great Plains into vast seas of grain and feed a growing nation. Canals and railroads made long-distance travel possible, while the telegraph and, later, the telephone made it unnecessary. Mass production—another 19th century American invention—turned out a plethora of consumer goods, from automobiles and radios to fiberglass boats, all of which helped make the U.S. standard of living the highest in the world. Plenty gave the nation the opportunity to look beyond its own rapidly closing frontiers and explore the poles, the moon and now the surface of Mars (see SCIENCE).

Lately, however, there have been fears that the U.S. may be giving up—or letting go of—its lead in technology.

The National Science Foundation reports that foreign inventions now account for nearly a third of the 1,300-plus patents issued each week by the U.S. Patent Office. Foreign countries lead the U.S. in the development of supersonic passenger jets and the introduction of new drugs and are catching and surpassing the country in the areas of electronics and textiles. From corporate boardrooms to garret laboratories, there is a widespread concern that the U.S. genius for invention is going the way of the passenger pigeon.

This is not a baseless worry. Foreign companies have expanded enormously in recent years, partly by importing, and in some cases improving upon American technology. Meanwhile, recession and the inflation of the past decade have taken their toll in the U.S. research and development community. Many American companies have cut back on investment into potentially risky new products. Federal funding for research has also been in increasingly short supply. The U.S. investment in R. and D. actually decreased during the early 1970s, and still remains too sparse for the scientific community’s satisfaction. For example, funds for space projects, which stood at $6 billion a year in 1966, now total a mere $3 billion.

But any requiem for American ingenuity would be premature, as today’s patent applications powerfully suggest. In recent years, U.S. inventors have found ways to take layer-by-layer pictures of the body’s organs, engineer bacteria that can digest spilled oil, build a shuttle craft for round trips into space. Within the past few months, patents have been obtained on a light bulb that will last ten years and a toothless gear, while inventors have devised ways to dispose of nuclear wastes and make good use of discarded beverage bottles. Now, inventive Americans are turning their attention toward finding alternatives to oil, increasing food production and further improving the speed and ease of communication. Says Dr. Simon Ramo, vice chairman of TRW: “The era of ‘science Olympics’ is over; the future is for more down-to-earth stuff. Much of what happens in the future is related to how American innovators respond to current challenges in energy, in food production. Only the U.S. has the unique combination of resources, the people, the science and technology to respond.”

And only the U.S., say some social scientists, has the right atmosphere for innovation. Says Chaytor Mason, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California: “There are three things that keep the spirit of invention alive. First is our form of government; it encourages more independence than most. Second is the high rate of competition. Finally, this country just seems to spawn a little craziness.”

A tolerance for eccentricity may have helped Edison or the Wright brothers. But what large-scale innovators need more is money. Most of this now comes from the country’s major industrial companies, which have been hard-pressed to maintain research budgets against the pressures of inflation and recession.

The companies, which maintain large well-organized laboratories, readily admit that the team approach to invention is less romantic than the notion of the inventor as a lonely visionary working in his basement or garage. But the days when information was simple and equipment inexpensive are past. The explosion of new patents, new concepts, new materials, new applications, new chemicals and new machinery that has occurred during the past two decades makes it virtually mandatory that a creative person have major support if he is to solve major problems. Says Bernard Oliver, head of research and development at Hewlett-Packard in California: “Ideas do not come out of committees but from individuals. But a team effort sets the inventor up to make the one last leap and test it.”

Team research has allowed some large companies to do exactly that. G.E. has improved the design of nuclear reactors and introduced many consumer products, including frost-free refrigerators and microwave ovens. Bell Labs has developed ways to communicate by sending beams of light along hairline glass fibers.

Other firms have been seeking ways to obtain cheap energy by harnessing the power of the sun or wind. The Boeing Company of Seattle is working on a project called Powersat, which involves assembling a nine-mile-long solar-heat collector in space; once assembled, it can ride along in orbit beaming the sun’s power back to earth. On a more mundane level, Boeing has a contract with the Energy Research and Development Administration to develop a 10 million-watt power plant using heliostats—mirror-like reflectors that would catch the sun’s rays and reflect them to a central receiving tower where their heat would be used to drive a turbine.

Varian Associates of Palo Alto has also come up with an idea to tap the sun as a source of power. The firm has developed a gallium arsenide solar converter only one-third of an inch in diameter that can produce 10 watts of electricity from the sunlight reflected from a concentrating mirror.

Innovation has also revolutionized the computer industry.

The pioneering vacuum-tube computer built by RCA in 1953 occupied an area the size of a football field and required 300 tons of air-conditioning equipment to keep it operating. But the invention of the transistor and integrated circuits did away with the tube and made such electronic leviathans obsolete. In 1968 William Hewlett, of Hewlett-Packard, looked at his firm’s typewriter-size desktop calculator and asked his engineers to make him one that would fit in his shirt pocket. H.P. Technology Chief David Cochran and his colleagues succeeded, and today several firms make pocket calculators.

Computers are also moving into other areas, thanks to the invention by Marcian E. Hoff Jr., of Intel Corp., of the micro computer, containing tiny (1/6 sq. in.) chips of silicon, now used in cars to control antiskid systems or monitor engine temperatures and in refineries and sewage-treatment plants to control the decomposition of waste and the levels of bacteria. Some engineers are also working on the development of home computer terminals that could give individuals access to whole libraries of information, as well as start a sort of “electronic democracy” in which public opinion on any issue could be sampled almost instantly.

Yet the success of group invention does not mean that the lone tinkerer is extinct. Enormous obstacles—financial, administrative, legal—face the inventor who wants to set up a laboratory in a closet and create new concepts and gadgets. Still, the classic garret inventor has managed to survive. Edwin Link, inventor of the famed “Link trainer” for instrument flight, has managed to move out of aviation and into oceanography, and now explores the underwater world in a clear, bubble-shaped plastic submarine of his own design. William Lear, who has invented radios, airplanes and steam-powered vehicles, is now working with a Canadian aircraft company to develop a small, quiet and highly fuel-efficient jet plane.

Dozens of other inventors have come up with schemes, some of them practical, others Rube Goldbergian in their complexity, to beat the fuel shortage. Steven Bear of New Mexico has designed a house with a wall that lowers into the ground to expose still another wall composed of water-filled barrels. The barrels soak up the New Mexico sun on bright days and keep the house warm for as many as two or three sunless days. Harold Hay, 67, of Atascadero, Calif., has built himself a house whose roof is covered by what amounts to a giant waterbed. Roof panels slide back to allow the sun’s rays to heat the water-filled bag during the day, close to keep the heat in at night.

Other individual inventors have turned their attention to transportation. Dr. Joachim Lay, 56, who, like Archimedes, finds the bathroom a good place to do his thinking, was just drying off from a shower back in 1972 when the idea for a rotary engine flashed through his mind. Three years and $3,000 later, he patented a rotary engine that he claims is more efficient than the better-known Wankel. Retired Physicist Howard Chapman, 62, and an associate, Alan Tratner, 29, have built a rotary engine they insist is half again as efficient as those used in automobiles today and have refused to be discouraged by the fact that the world has yet to beat a path to their doors. “Inventors just can’t help it. They’re trapped,” explains Chapman. “They just have to keep working on things, coming up with new ideas, making things better.”

Chapman’s explanation is understandable. Even in the U.S., where ingenuity generally pays off better than almost anywhere else, few individual inventors get rich from their innovations. Some find a certain measure of support in group groping for ideas in cooperative inventor mills. One of these is run by Jack Ryan, inventor of the Barbie doll, who operates an inventors’ workshop in the basement of his Bel Air mansion. Those who do not care to be the ward of some modern, moneyed Medici often turn to professional patent services to help them through the bureaucratic tangles of obtaining patents and marketing or licensing their inventions.

Most inventors, however, struggle on alone. Dr. Sam Bessman, 55, a Los Angeles pediatrician, works in a garage to perfect an artificial pancreas. His chances of making money on his invention are small. But Bessman is unconcerned. Says he, discussing the process of invention: “It’s like writing a story or composing a symphony or painting a picture; you see something in your mind. It’s the greatest experience in the world.”

Most of Bessman’s fellow inventors, whether they are working in well-equipped laboratories on developing sophisticated electronic instruments, toiling in their attics to perfect products like a snag-free small-boat anchor or an engine that burns cow manure, share his philosophy. Their attitude is encouraging. The world needs better mousetraps as well as solutions to the more pressing problems of feeding its population, powering its machines and cleaning up its air and water. Governments may be able to supply the money and authority to solve these problems, but, as in the past, only ingenuity can provide the technology.

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