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Teen poll names computer as most important 20th-century invention

The popularity of the television is sinking while that of the personal computer is rising, at least among American teens. And wireless devices such as cell phones, pagers and personal digital assistants are far more important to American teens than to their parents. These are some of the key findings of the latest Lemelson-MIT Invention Index , an annual survey of Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating.

The survey was conducted by RoperASW from a nationally representative sample of 1,012 adults and 500 teenagers from Dec. 14-18.

When asked to select the most important invention of the 20th century from among five choices--the personal computer, the pacemaker, television, wireless communications and water purification--32 percent of teenagers cited the computer, while 26 percent chose the pacemaker. Wireless communications ranked third at 18 percent, garnering almost twice as many votes as the TV (10 percent). In fact, teens view the television as the least important invention of the 20th century behind the four other choices.

In contrast, adults ranked the television third with 15 percent voting for it, and wireless communications came in last at 10 percent. They said the pacemaker was the most important invention of the 20th century, attracting 34 percent of adult responses. It easily outranked the personal computer (26 percent), water purification (11 percent) and wireless communications.

"The generational differences are quite striking," said Professor Emeritus Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program and the Toyota Professor Emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "Teen preference for mobile devices over television--the opposite of their parents--is an interesting indicator of lifestyle changes ahead."


Americans believe inventors are more important in protecting the nation than elected officials, according to the survey. While Americans overwhelmingly agree that the military is "extremely" or "very important" for US safety, inventors followed closely, and politicians ranked last in importance among the three choices.

Teenagers agree that encouragement by parents to do well in school is "extremely" or "very important" in fostering their interest in science and inventing. Parental encouragement ranked higher than purchasing computers and providing books and media.

Teens and adults said altruism is the principal reason to become an inventor (62 percent teens, 61 percent adults). A secondary reason for teens is to have fun (39 percent), while for adults it's making money (35 percent). When teens were asked who they would most want on their team for a reality television show such as "Survivor," inventors (31 percent) ranked behind athletes (50 percent).

Regarding hopes for events in their lifetimes, slightly more than two-thirds of both of teens and adults said they most want a cure for cancer. Fifty-two percent of adults and 46 percent of teens ranked the elimination of world hunger second, but teens are more interested than adults in seeing solar-powered cars replace gas-powered ones (28 percent vs. 22 percent) and in the ability to live on another planet (27 percent vs. 7 percent).

The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index has explored Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating since 1996. See the Lemelson-MIT Program web site for links and more information about the survey and the program's origins, activities and awards.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 6, 2002.

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