Inventors Hall of Fame Tries To Keep Innovation Alive

A FOOT of snow fell the night Allen Jensen arrived in Akron, Ohio. It was an inauspicious start, since Mr. Jensen was looking the city over as a possible permanent site for the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Akron is home to the site, and it hasn't stopped celebrating. In early April it hosted the Hall of Fame's 1990 induction ceremonies. In October officials of the National Invention Center plan to break ground for a new building to house the Hall of Fame.

The local hoopla over inventors contrasts sharply with the nation's sober mood about creativity. Two hundred years after the US Patent office opened its doors, many inventors, executives, and government officials say the country's creative edge has dulled.

``We do well when we work at something. [But] we haven't tried, so we are getting poorer and poorer as a country and eventually it will hurt,'' says Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corporation and one of 10 inventors inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

Anyone who thinks America's creative juices are diluted should meet Andy Meredith, age 7. Concerned that his fellow first-graders had trouble opening bags of potato chips, he invented Kid Zips - a contraption of thread and wax paper that opens like bandage wrappers.

Experts in business, science, education, and government say that as these young inventors grow up, however, several obstacles stand in the way of success:

Schools. Evidence is mounting that US math and science education is poor by any standard, let alone in comparison with students from other developed nations. A study released earlier this month by the National Center for Education Statistics found that three out of five eighth-graders could not solve problems involving fractions and decimals. One in five could not even perform simple addition and subtraction.

Patents. Between 1963 and 1988, the share of US patents issued to foreigners jumped from 18.6 percent to 47.3 percent. Last year the share dropped slightly to 46.7 percent. Seven of the 10 companies that took out the most US patents last year were foreign. Japanese companies filled the top four spots.

Technology transfer. There is wide agreement that the US is slower than other countries in moving an idea from the laboratory to the marketplace. The result is most vivid in consumer electronics. Color television, portable radios, and home videocassette recorders were invented in the US but are made almost exclusively overseas.

The US can sharpen its creative and industrial edge, inventors say, by revising federal tax laws that discourage research and development. It's also a question of attitude. A new invention is as much a moral conflict as it is a scientific one, requiring courage to challenge the prevailing thinking, says Raymond Damadian, a 1989 Hall of Fame inductee.

Can a Hall of Fame become a motivating symbol?

``The idea of giving recognition to these heroes may relight and respark the flame for entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation - and really, the very competitiveness of our country,'' says Akron patent attorney Ned Oldham.

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