Nashua, N.H. — In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and hailed American entrepreneurs and innovators as ''American heroes.'' In 1981, Richard Reeves retraced the famous de Tocqueville journey, and pronounced that they were too often ''American hustlers.''
In 1983, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference.
Take two of America's most celebrated young innovators, 10-year-old Curtis Lawson and 14-year-old Lewis Barton. Last fall, they became the youngest inventors ever to obtain a US patent. They now have a talent agent in New York, and a publicity agent. A book is being written about them, and a West Coast production company is considering making a television movie of their lives.
But they also have 10 US patents, citations from New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and the state House and Senate, and an award from the Boston Patent Law Association. On Friday, Vice-President George Bush will fly to Nashua to give them the first annual National Inventors Award.
The inventions - a swimming pool cleaning device and a combination unspillable drink holder and car food tray - may not change the course of civilization, but the modest ideas are likely to turn the youngsters into teen-age millionaires.
Some say the two boys have the potential to be counted among the great inventors of our time, someday. But the real question behind the extraordinary story of Curtis and Lewis may be whether an innovator can succeed without being something of a salesman.
Steered by the adults around them, Curtis and Lewis are doing remarkably well at selling their inventions by being good at selling themselves. Publicity agent Lou Prescott says negotiations are under way with a fast-food firm to buy the rights to the car food tray.
The atmosphere of hype surrounding the boys doesn't ruffle Donald Meeker, president of the Inventors Association of New England in Boston.
''That's what it takes to get an invention to market,'' Mr. Meeker says. ''It takes a lot of perseverance to convince people of your product. For many of these people, the ideas come easily. The hard part is getting it to market.''
Kenneth Gidge, the inventor-president of the National Inventors Award Committee, also says promotion and commercial salesmanship are vital to the inventor: ''If you can't sell it, what good is it? That's the plight of the inventor.''
''The kids know it's a hustle,'' says one observer. ''They know what's going on.'' But they have few doubts as to how much the publicity can help them.
It all started last summer when the Lawson family piled into the car for a field trip to Washington, D.C.
Mary Lawson didn't pack her children up for the trip to Washington just to gaze at national monuments. They went so the boys could scour the US Patent Office. They couldn't afford an expensive patent attorney to do a search to find out if their inventions already existed.
Inventors come up with better mousetraps all the time, but rarely do they receive the onslaught of publicity these two boys have. They are on their way to being successful partly because they have become media darlings, courted by newspapers, TV, and magazines. Playing matchmaker to this press flirtation is Lou Prescott, a publicity agent and family friend.
The story of how they became inventors began last May, when Lewis became a foster son in the Lawson home. Mary Lawson is a single woman who works full-time managing a New England fish-farming firm as well as mothering two adopted children, Curtis and Ashley, the youngest.
Mary Lawson says she must run a strict household to make it all work. Among her rules are a mandatory two hours of ''daily creative time'' every afternoon. She says she doesn't allow the television or radio on during that time (''so they have to rely on their own imaginations instead of someone else's''). First she had the boys work alone, then together. They clicked. They polished off their homework, then turned to creative pursuits. Then they talked about about what they had accomplished every night at 6 o'clock dinner.
''They know that I care, and there's a system (they have to follow),'' Ms. Lawson says. ''In the average home, there is usually love for the children, but there is seldom a system. Parents are too busy doing their own things.''
Raymond Jaeger, who is writing a book about the Lawson family, says, ''The boys have gotten all the attention, but the real story - the scoop, if you will - is the mother.'' The working title of the book is ''Mother of Invention.''
The boys have also shot screen tests in New York for possible parts in commercials and soap operas, but talent agent Barbara Jarrett says the family was in touch with her almost a year ago - before the boys started inventing.
It's easy to forget just how small a fifth-grader is. Curtis looks tiny as he swings open the front door of his house. He's wearing a white shirt and dark pants - his parochial-school uniform.
But meeting a stranger, he is effusive and confident, even chatty. He thrusts out his little hand to shake. He's obviously done the newspaper-reporter greeting routine before. And he steals hearts right away. His dark liquid eyes are bright, and his smile is warm.
Teen-ager Lewis is almost awkwardly shy. He's the one that observers say is the engineering and design talent of the pair. In his jersey and sweat pants, lined up in a junior high school gymnasium for baseball team tryouts, he catches the pitch aimed his way and fires it back, just like every other kid there. But he stays by himself, he doesn't banter with the other boys. He seems to be a loner.
The boys stay close to home, and don't do much teen-age ''hanging out'' with friends. Curtis changes into a plaid flannel shirt and corduroys. Lewis stays in his baseball sweats. They sit attentively and talk about how they work - together.
''What happens is, Lewis does the drawing, and I'll get an idea, and we'll bounce ideas back and forth and we'll come up with one object,'' says Curtis. ''Then we'll go and build it, and check with the Patent Office to see if there is anything like it.'' They sift through piles of similar patents, and if nothing like it exists, they get the patent.
The boys tinker on a workbench in the corner of their unheated garage, even through the fierce New Hampshire winters. The garage walls are lined with sports gear and bicycles.
''The kids are not geniuses - they are kids,'' says author Jaeger.
And like most kids, they don't relish doing chores around the house. Trying to lighten the chore load has been the mother of their inventions. The swimming pool cleaning device was devised after they got irritated at how hard it was to reach all the debris floating on top of the water in the middle of the pool. The unspillable drink holder clicked after they had cleaned up the car yet again after their mother had spilled a hot drink as she drove. The food tray came after a fast stop sent burgers and fries flying.
''They're very different from their friends, and I'm glad they are,'' says Ms. Lawson.
Lewis admits that some parents would probably have a hard time enforcing the daily creative session. He says most kids would be offended if their parents told them they had to sit down for two whole hours of creative time.
But Lewis has simple advice for other young would-be inventors: ''Think of a problem, and then solve it.''
Friends of the family say that Lawson drives her children, but supports them, too. She demands a lot of her boys, even in helping around the house.
Curtis likes to think of himself and his brother as pint-sized Orville and Wilbur Wrights. But the older and wiser Lewis says he knows they will have to come up with some pioneering inventions to ever be considered as great as the Wright Brothers. Curtis notes that his and Lewis's ages added together are still younger than Thomas Edison was when he snared his first patent.
The boys and their mother have already formed their own company called Young Inventors Inc., to patent, manufacture, promote, and market their inventions.
Ever since it became known that the boys had sidestepped hiring an expensive patent attorney, they have gotten calls from struggling inventors who want to learn how they did their own patent search and filing. They now charge a flat fee for offering advice on inventions.
They freely admit that they want fame and fortune. Lewis says he wants the publicity to continue, because ''it helps the marketing, because when you're in the press, more manufacturers are aware of you.''
What do they want to be doing 10 years from now? Lewis's immediate response was ''Making money. In business. Most kids would say they'd like to be doing something fun like racing cars or flying airplanes. But I think business is the only place where there's money to be made.''
Curtis stopped for a moment before replying, ''Inventing with my brother.''
Inventor Gidge says invention is not rare among young people.
''People just don't understand what young people are doing,'' he says. On the whole, children aren't encouraged to invent.
Inventiveness is everywhere, he says.
''What the boys have come up with, what they've invented, is not earth-shattering,'' Gidge admits. ''But we're not giving them the (National Inventors) award for their inventions, but for their potential. They're important little kids. They're going to be putting people to work. And if nurtured properly, they may someday be Robert Jarviks.'' (Jarvik was one of the inventors of the artificial heart.)
Does Gidge think fame and fortune will ruin their possibilities?
''There is an old saying: 'Money will spoil a good inventor but enhance a great inventor,' '' he says. ''What that means is, it depends on what they do with the money they earn. Will they sink their money and effort into more inventions, or will they scatter their energies in other directions?''