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Survey targets usefulness of inventions

Personal computers are as vital as blow dryers, but television and autos outrank both, according to the results of a national survey on inventions and inventors.

Commissioned to probe our perceptions of inventors and inventions, "The Invention Index" asked more than 1,000 adults in the US, ages 18 and older, which inventions were most important, which inventions they could not live without, and what attributes inventors have.

Autos were voted the most important invention (34 percent) that most people (63 percent) could not live without. Only eight percent of respondents said they could not live without a personal computer--the same percentage as for blow dryers. A mere five percent said television was most important, but 22 percent said they could not live without it.

After the automobile, respondents ranked the light bulb and the telephone as most important. The PC tied with aspirin for fourth place.

The survey was sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, an activity that seeks to encourage more young people to embark on careers in invention by studying science and engineering.

Inventors were seen as eccentric (45 percent) and over 40 (32 percent). Only 16 percent would call inventors "rich."

"These results not only underscore the importance of inventions in our daily lives, they also reveal a disconnect in our perception of inventors," said Lester C. Thurow, professor of management and economics at the Sloan School of Management and chair of the Lemelson-MIT Prize board. "Many US corporations, large and small, started from an invention and are sustained by inventions. Inventors-of all ages and most of them with technical training-are what drive our economy and help maintain America's status as a world leader."

Complete survey results are available on-line at the "Invention Dimension," located at . Launched late last fall under the auspices of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, the web site includes a wealth of information about American invention and innovation for K-12 students and teachers as well as the general public. The Invention Dimension features a different American inventor each week with a biographical sketch that focuses on the story behind the inventions. The site also features extensive links to sites related to inventors and inventing.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 31, 1996.

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