Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2010

The Electrifying Edison

At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Washington, children in Natosh Jones' third-grade class bend over model cars designed to run on solar power. Working with a team of professional scientists from NASA and other federal agencies, they're putting finishing touches on the cars. With a student body that is almost totally minority and predominantly poor, Martin Luther King is the kind of American public school that has too often failed its students, especially in science and mathematics. But today Jones' students are learning the way all trainee scientists should: hands-on, through the sort of dogged trial and error that has always been the preface to American invention, a method Thomas Edison helped pioneer. "I like it this way because I get to learn how to do things, and when people ask me what I'm doing, I can show them how I'm doing it," says 8-year-old Sinia Stewart. "It makes me want to make other things that you can do in science."

The solar-car lesson was the kickoff event for National Lab Day, May 12 this year. The day is the brainchild of Jack Hidary, an Internet entrepreneur who has moved into education and clean-energy philanthropy. The idea was simple — teachers like Jones would come up with a hands-on science project, and Hidary's website would connect them with local scientists willing to help in the classroom. Kids not only get professional assistance in their projects, but they actually get to see a scientist in the flesh — rare at a time when science has largely vanished from the national conversation. "This is about solving problems and experiencing failure and success — being a scientist," says Hidary, who wants National Lab Day to grow into a permanent initiative.

And not a moment too soon, because American pre-eminence in the crucial fields of science and technology is flagging. Invention and innovation have been quintessentially American pursuits from the earliest days of the republic. Benjamin Franklin was a world-famous scientist and inventor. Cyrus McCormick and his harvester, Samuel F.B. Morse and the telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone — the 19th century produced a string of inventors and their world-changing creations. And then there was the greatest of them all, Thomas Alva Edison. By the time of his death in 1931, at age 84, Edison had patented a phenomenal 1,093 mechanisms and processes, including a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder and — perhaps a century too soon — a battery for an electric car. He came up with the crucial devices that would give birth to three enduring American industries: electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures. Edison, as the title of Neil Baldwin's 1996 biography goes, spent his career "inventing the century" — the 20th century.

Inventors like Edison helped build America's unparalleled scientific and technological dominance, a dominance that, more than any other single factor, made the 20th century the American century. Of the more than 530 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry or medicine since 1901, more than 200 have been Americans. The ideas that were developed in the country's leading universities and corporate research and development centers became the products that would underwrite economic titans like Ford, IBM, Boeing, Intel and Google. And the federal government played an important role through its own research laboratories and investments in education. Even when America's scientific pre-eminence was threatened by the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch in 1957, the U.S. only came back stronger. "The federal response to Sputnik was an overwhelming investment in science and engineering education," says Teryn Norris, director of Americans for Energy Leadership. "That had spillover benefits across the board."

Much of the world we live in today is a legacy of Edison and of his devotion to science and innovation. He not only invented the first commercial electric lightbulb but also established the first investor-owned electric utility, in 1882, on Pearl Street in New York City. His phonograph, invented in 1877, launched a global recorded-music industry that is worth nearly $150 billion today. But more than a simple series of inventions, Edison's most lasting contribution might be in the system of industrial invention he helped pioneer. Edison's true genius lay in his ability to bring mass brainpower to the process of invention — and then to market the resulting devices with the deep pools of capital just forming in late 19th century America. The Menlo Park way, using a sizable cadre of skilled assistants with expertise in multiple fields, became the foundation for research and development as it is practiced in the U.S. and increasingly around the world. Edison taught us to invent, and for decades we were the best in the world.

But today, more than 160 years after Edison's birth, America is losing its scientific edge. A landmark report released in May by the National Science Board lays out the numbers: while U.S. investment in R&D as a share of total GDP has remained relatively constant since the mid-1980s at 2.7%, the federal share of R&D has been consistently declining — even as Asian nations like Japan and South Korea have rapidly increased that ratio. China's investments in R&D grew more than 20% a year between 1996 and 2007, compared with less than 6% annual growth in the U.S. At the same time, American students seem to be losing interest in science. Only about one-third of U.S. bachelor's degrees are in science or engineering now, compared with 63% in Japan and 53% in China. Though the U.S. was once among the top countries in terms of the ratio of science and engineering degrees to its college-age population, it now ranks near the bottom among the 23 nations that collect that data. And while the U.S. awarded 22,500 doctorates in science and engineering in 2007, more than half of those went to foreign nationals, a proportion that has grown in recent years.

Was a supportive environment important to Edison? Absolutely. He was a singular figure but not a lone genius. His immense gifts were nurtured by the society in which he flourished, one that reveled in the romance of scientific discovery. When he was still a small boy, his family moved from Milan, Ohio, to the bustling lumber town of Port Huron, Mich. For a budding inventor, it was the right place and the right time. The country was in the full grip of the Industrial Revolution. In Port Huron's lumber mills and shipyards, which fed vessels plying the Great Lakes and beyond, Edison could get his first experience of the machinery that was transforming America from an agricultural nation into an industrial powerhouse.

It's true that Edison didn't have much formal schooling; it may have amounted to no more than three months. But Edison's mother Nancy, a former teacher, took serious charge of his education at home, where in time he put together a chemistry lab. Edison was also a relentless autodidact, wading through not only the classics in his father's library but also scientific treatises and the science journals that were just taking off in the U.S. Even as a working teenager earning dimes as a railway newsboy on the line between Port Huron and Detroit, Edison was willing to spend the $2 needed to join the Detroit public library — though that was nearly two days' pay.

At age 16 he took a job as an itinerant telegraph operator for Western Union, traveling among the cities of the Midwest on the country's metastasizing railroad lines. By his early 20s he was creating his first inventions: improved forms of telegraph equipment. In time he moved to Boston, where he found himself in a scientific hotbed that would anticipate the geek heaven of Silicon Valley in the 1970s. Amateur telegraphers would trade technological tweaks, competing for new patents, and Edison had the chance to take in public lectures at the new Boston Tech, which would later become the globally influential Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was one of Edison's brightest ideas that when he moved seriously into his career as an inventor, in the 1870s, he created his own, smaller-scale version of an inventor community in Menlo Park, N.J. The laboratory and workshop he established there in 1876 — his "invention factory" — put him at the center of a critical mass of assistants with backgrounds in multiple areas of science, engineering and skilled labor. It was essentially America's first industrial R&D facility and the forerunner of every business-world creative cockpit, from the Ford engineering center to the Microsoft campus and Google's Googleplex. At Menlo Park, Edison once boasted, he and his team could develop "a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so." That's a rate even Steve Jobs would kill for.

It's ironic that nowhere is America's position in science and technology more threatened than in the industry that Edison essentially invented: energy. Clean power could be to the 21st century what aeronautics and the computer were to the 20th, but the U.S. is already falling behind. China, South Korea and Japan are set to invest more than $500 billion combined in clean technology over the next five years, while the U.S. is likely to invest less than $200 billion — and that's assuming clean-energy legislation makes it into law. Meanwhile, Congress remains largely paralyzed. Though in May the House of Representatives was finally able to pass the $86 billion America Competes Reauthorization Act, which would double the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Energy Department's Office of Science, the bill's fate is cloudy in the deadlocked Senate. "At this rate...we'll be buying most of our wind generators and photovoltaic panels from China," former NSF head Arden L. Bement said at a congressional hearing recently. "That's what keeps me awake sometimes at night."

He's not the only one. In mid-June, a group of corporate titans, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, descended on Washington to call for U.S. spending on energy research to be tripled. They noted that the government today spends less than $5 billion a year on energy research and development — not counting temporary stimulus projects — compared with $30 billion annually on health research and more than $80 billion on military R&D. At a time when energy is more important than ever — and while oil from a blown well bleeds into the Gulf of Mexico — the U.S. no longer seems willing to create the environment that can engender the innovation we were once known for. "The world is not going to wait for the United States to lead," said Immelt. "This is about innovation. This is about competition. This is about energy security."

Some erosion of the U.S.'s scientific dominance is inevitable in a globalized world and might not even be a bad thing. Tomorrow's innovators could arise in Shanghai or Seoul or Bangalore. And Edison would counsel against panic — as he put it once, "Whatever setbacks America has encountered, it has always emerged as a stronger and more prosperous nation." But the U.S. will inevitably decline unless we invest in the education and research necessary to maintain the American edge. The next generation of Edisons could be waiting. But unless we move quickly, they won't have the tools they need to thrive.