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Jewish World Review June 26, 2002 / 16 Tamuz, 5762

Scott R. Burnell

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Consumer Reports


So long, solo inventors


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (UPI) It is sad when a simple bar graph can portend doom for one of this country's great icons -- the inveterate inventor, toiling away in a basement or garage to create that better mousetrap.

Information from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows America's lone inventors reached their creative peak close to 1915, when they cranked out about 30,000 original things, or roughly two-thirds of the country's total. Since then, it has been a slow and steady conversion to invention by committee.

The PTO's latest figures show individual inventors' output has fallen by several thousand patents, while laboratories in the academic, government and industrial fields have notched more than 150,000 patents.

Does this trend mean groups are more prolific, or smarter?

No, it simply displays the reality of scientific endeavor today -- the entire process, from "Eureka!" to marketable product, is becoming too complex for any single person, no matter how brilliant.

This does not preclude coming up with the next novel can-opener or a more effective toothbrush, but revolutionary ideas that have shaken the world, such as the light bulb, now seem destined to emerge from the major laboratories.

Thomas Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, N.J., stood at the dawning of elementary knowledge about the nature of electricity. His genius lay in being stubborn enough to grab that genie as it came out of the bottle, forcing it to reveal as many secrets as Edison could imagine, whether or not they proved valuable.

Today, however, the genies and the bottles they live in are tucked away at the intersections of several scientific disciplines. It is no longer enough to master only physics or any other science -- many times even two degrees are not enough to find truly new ideas.

Take carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders thousands of times thinner than a human hair, with walls only one atom thick. Just creating them requires expertise in basic chemistry and high-temperature materials science.

The unique qualities of these molecule-scale marvels only start in the mechanical and electrical realms. Figuring out how to use them starts in the chemistry realm but quickly branches into computer circuitry, medicine and other specialties.

There is always the Internet, you might say. Surely that ever-growing trove of knowledge can fill enough gaps in one person's ability to enable radical discoveries, right?

Sadly, that is not the case. Although the Web certainly supplies facts, it cannot make up for the insight you gain from intensive study. Having an idea is rarely enough to fit that thought into the existing body of experiments and findings.

The collaborative consciousness you find in groups at universities and other research centers is the key to pulling a discovery out of the lab and into practice. But even then the job is not done.

Recording and protecting that work can entail an army of legal eagles and fact-checkers. The more humans discover and patent, the more "prior art" an inventor must dig through to ensure his or her idea is truly original. Even with Internet-aided searches, major corporations have trouble avoiding competing claims when their work enters the public eye -- remember Amazon.com's attempt at patenting "one-click" shopping?

Where does all this leave our solitary strivers, convinced they have come across the best thing since sliced bread? Stuck at the threshold of discovery, basically, as group research continues to push those souls further into the cold realm of "sorry, that's already been done."



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