Invention is a hedge against anonymity; make something that matters and you can live forever. Hans Geiger and his counter, Samuel Morse and his code, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and his highly efficient blade. But we know by now that for every Edison or Jonas Salk there are legions of inventors whose genius goes unsung, who may never be famous, though they can get rich.
I'd never heard of Marion Donovan, a Connecticut housewife and mother of two who, in 1946, got sick of doing laundry. She sat down at her sewing machine with a shower curtain, and the next thing you knew she had invented the reusable diaper cover, which she ultimately made out of nylon parachute cloth and sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. Then she designed an absorbent paper for a completely disposable diaper--which every large manufacturer told her was "superfluous and impractical," until the people at Pampers realized otherwise.
Inventions have always had many parents. "Doubt is the father of invention," said Galileo. Necessity is its mother, said Plato. Or, in the luxurious modern age, sloth, which gave us the electric toothbrush, the universal remote and the drive-through liquor store. These days, the operative motivation may be frugality, which leads to the discovery that balled-up newspaper deodorizes shoes, baby oil cleans chrome and sticking a marshmallow or an orange peel in a bag of brown sugar keeps it from hardening into a sweet dark rock. Or sustainability, which propels university students and volunteers to develop an incubator out of recycled car parts, engineers to embed battery rechargers in roadbeds and designers to fashion a fake fur coat out of plastic garment fasteners.
There's no shortage of ideas in circulation; the number of patent applications in the U.S. has doubled since just 1997, to close to half a million a year. Still, I suspect that many of us are too busy keeping up to pause for tinkering, conceiving, concocting or devising. Technology, that bullying child of progress and prosperity, gives us ever finer tools of invention even as it denies us the time to use them. We are so wired, so networked and so well equipped that one person now does the job five people used to, thus hoisting productivity while precluding creativity.
It seems we're on the verge of getting our jet packs--but no one has yet managed the time machine. Or better yet, the time expander. So we've got to play tricks on ourselves: schedule free time, however counterintuitive that may seem. Deep immersion in a task--no distractions, no interruptions--can give the illusion that time itself is receding. We feel lighter, braver, our brains more nimble; we free ourselves to try and fail and try again. I've always envied the Google engineers their "20% time": the one day a week they are told to allocate to a kind of intellectual R&D, working on projects that aren't part of their normal job description. This speaks to one of the ironies of innovation: too much freedom makes it harder, too little makes it impossible. But if we were ordered by our bosses to spend even one hour a week brainstorming, blue-skying, free-associating, I imagine the rest of the week would become more creative as well.