Patents are the DNA of inventions, spawning entire new industries, businesses and economies. The giving away of patents by Toyota to spur development in hydrogen fuel, and by Tesla to help kickstart electric vehicle technology, are recent examples. A study by the Brookings Institution finds that the most productive periods in the United States occurred during the early 20th century and the Great Depression. The rate of patenting is nearly as high today as at any time in U.S. history. The most patents (per capita) came in 1916, 1915, 1885, 1932, 2010, 2011, 1931, 1883, 1890 and 1917. Here’s a look at some inventions from those years.
1883: Thomas Edison's Voltage Regulator
Superstar-inventor Thomas Edison has claimed more than 1,000 patents, including the phonograph, light bulb and this electronic device that was key to the development of radio, television and computer transistors.
Wikimedia Commons/Imperial War College
1885: Machine Gun
American-born British citizen Hiram Maxim invents a self-powered portable and fully-automatic machine gun that changes warfare. Its effects on society and the constitutional right to own it are still being debated today.
Thomas Kokta/Getty Images
1890: Stop Sign
William Phelps Eno proposed the first set of traffic rules and signs in an article in Rider and Driver, although the first actual sign didn’t appear until 1915.
1915: Stainless Steel Sink
The discovery of a new “rustless” steel by British metallurgist Harry Brearley is announced in the New York Times. Brearley applied for a patent that year, but American Elwood Haynes beat him to it. Its shiny surface, strength and corrosive resistant properties revolutionized modern industry from skyscrapers to kitchen utensils, trains and planes to medicine.
Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Corbis
1916: Condenser Microphone
Edward C. Wente of New Jersey’s Bell Labs invents the electronic condenser microphone, which can be found today in recording, television, film and radio studios.
Jonathan Fife/Getty Images
1917: Modern Zipper
Gideon Sundback figures out that 10 fasteners per inch works much better than four and invents the modern zipper, or “separable fastener.” Used to close boots and tobacco pouches, the zipper doesn’t get into clothing for another 20 years.
1931: Stop-action Photography
Harold “Doc” Edgerton began playing around with strobe lighting while a grad student at MIT, developing both stop-action and ultra-high speed photography. His images of exploding bullets, running athletes and milk droplets became iconic photos. He went on to invent underwater time-lapse photography, atomic bomb timing and lights for copiers and flash photography.
Edwin Land invents the polarizer, which filters light waves and reduces glare. He goes on to invent instant photography, while the polarizer leads to sunglasses, camera filters and LCDs.
Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Apple debuted its iPad tablet in April 2010. Its history goes back to 1983, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wanted to build a computer that users could carry around like a book, plug into telephone communications and link to libraries and other databases. It has been successful, kind of.
Over the last 20 years, fictional writing produced by young people has become less creative, more linear and less likely to contain magical elements, a new study reports.
On the flip side, the study also found that adolescent visual artworks have become more complex and sophisticated.
The findings, published in Creativity Research Journal, add to growing evidence that creativity is declining among U.S. students who are schooled to score well on standardized tests instead of thinking outside the box.
"With respect to writing, it's hard not to focus on the way the educational system has changed over the last 20 years, particularly the advent of No Child Left Behind that has really emphasized teaching to the test," said Katie Davis, an expert on human development and education who studies how digital media affects young people at the University of Washington.
"Emphasis on the five-paragraph essay and linear structures has not left a lot of room for risk-taking," she added. "Encouraging any sort of creative expression is very hard to do in the current era of high-stakes testing."
Imagination and creativity are essential for fueling innovation and unorthodox problem-solving strategies in business, culture, even sports. But while scientists have spent more than 100 years refining tools for measuring intelligence, said Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, an intense focus on understanding creativity began in earnest just 15 or 20 years ago.
One reason for the neglect is that creativity is harder to study. It can’t be assessed with multiple-choice questionnaires and instead requires time-consuming (and therefore expensive) reviews of people’s ability to solve problems.
The currently accepted gold standard for creativity assessment is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which asks test-takers to do things like come up with unusual uses for ballpoint pens and other common objects. Since 1990, a study published in 2010 found, scores on the test have been steadily declining in the United States. That news led to headlines and concerns about the nation's "creativity crisis."
Concerned that the Torrance test might not translate to real-life situations, Davis and colleagues collected examples of adolescent writing and visual art produced over a 20-year span, beginning in 1990. In the interim, the Internet became widespread and the focus of the U.S. educational system shifted. The researchers wondered how those trends might influence the creative output of young people.
To begin, the team collected more than 350 pieces of art published in a magazine called Teen Ink, which has showcased teen art, photography and writing since 1989. Half of the pieces ran in the early '90s. The other half ran more recently. Two trained visual artists rated each piece of art using a series of codes that assessed composition, background, stylistic approach and other details.
Compared to artwork produced two decades ago, the researchers reported, recent teen works were more likely to fill the whole canvas and include more stylized cropping. Figures tended to be placed off-center, and works more often incorporated collage, found objects and digital manipulation. All of those details suggested a rise in creativity, Davis said, likely as a result of exposure through the Internet to a more diverse array of art that could inspire students. Today, there are also many more options for using computers to produce art.
Creative writing showed the opposite trend. When the researchers coded and compared 25 recent stories with 25 older ones that were published in an annual literary magazine by a creative arts school in New Orleans, they found that the older stories were more experimental.
One story from the early '90s, for example, included a character who visited a psychologist, and the psychiatrist was a crab. At the end of the story, the protagonist grabbed the crab with a pair of tongs and threw it in his suitcase, saying, "Tonight I dine on boiled crab!"
More recent stories tended to be grounded in reality with scenes of uneventful Thanksgiving dinners and accidental shootings. Recent stories were also more likely to progress chronologically instead of jumping around in time.
Teachers are not to blame for the pressure to prioritize standards over creative thinking, Plucker said. Instead, it’s a system-wide issue that will need to shift towards giving students freedom to explore ideas before we’ll see a rebound in creativity.
Whether creativity is genetically determined or learned, he added, evidence suggests that just about all of us are underusing our imagination skills.
"Take any state accountability system, take No Child Left Behind, and show me any creativity or problem-solving indicators," Plucker said. 'They're not there. That tells you all you need to know."