While it may seem that cell phones, computers and other technology gadgets are Americans' most coveted items, teens and adults agree that the toothbrush is the one invention they cannot live without.
The 2003 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey of Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating, found that technologically advanced items significantly lag in importance behind the toothbrush, which was developed in the 15th century.
When asked to select the invention they could not live without from among five choices--toothbrush, automobile, personal computer, cell phone and microwave--more than a third of teens (34 percent) and almost half of adults (42 percent) cited the toothbrush. The automobile ranked a close second, getting votes from 31 percent of teens and 37 percent of adults.
Of the remaining choices, teens ranked the personal computer third (16 percent), the cell phone fourth (10 percent) and the microwave last (7 percent). Adults deemed the remaining choices equally important; the personal computer (6 percent), microwave oven (6 percent) and the cell phone (6 percent) tied for third place.
The survey also revealed that teen creativity leads to inventive ideas. In fact, more than a third of all teens (36 percent) reported having a great idea for a unique invention, but boys are far more likely than girls to develop innovative ideas (44 percent boys, 27 percent girls).
When asked what would motivate them to take the next step in developing ideas for a unique invention, nearly half (43 percent) of the teens surveyed agreed that encouragement from parents or teachers is the key.
When asked what they would like to be when they are older, a famous inventor (19 percent) was the second most popular career choice among boys. Becoming a famous athlete (42 percent) ranked first, with a famous actor (18 percent), a famous musician (16 percent) and president of the United States (13 percent) placing third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
The survey found that girls ranked inventor (10 percent) at the bottom of their list of career choices. Becoming a famous actress (32 percent) ranked first, followed by a famous musician (24 percent), a famous athlete (22 percent) and president of the United States (17 percent).
"We are encouraged that teens are showing greater interest in invention," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program and the Toyota Professor Emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "The challenge, however, is for parents and teachers to provide teens with the support and encouragement they require to take the next step in turning their ideas into reality. Parents and teachers may be more influential than they realize in fostering creative thinking and innovation among young people."
Responses to other questions revealed that the majority of teens believe invention and innovation will have a highly significant impact in helping the U.S. maintain its leadership position. The majority of teens and adults believe that finding a cure for cancer is achievable during their lifetime as a result of invention. In addition, more than a quarter of teens and over a third of adults think that solar-powered cars will replace all gasoline-powered cars.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 2003.