Retooling Inventors' Nerdy Image

Scientists hope to inspire future Edisons through competitions, greater recognition

IF Edison and Bell were alive today, would they make the evening news?

A number of inventors are starting to think not. Invention and innovation have long been hallmarks of American technological prowess. But increasingly, some of the nation's most creative toolers are wondering if their skills - and the rewards of their work - are adequately celebrated.

As a result, they're working to raise awareness of a number of programs and competitions designed to overhaul their ''nerdy'' image and whet the appetite of the next century's inventors - a group that is key to the country's future prosperity.

''We need to inspire [young people] to develop new products and socially responsible, marketable solutions to contemporary dilemmas,'' says Jerome Lemelson, the inventor of such conveniences as the touch-controlled cassette-tape drive, which is found in the Sony Walkman. ''We must convince our nation's youth that scientific careers are valued and important to our culture.''

One of the best barometers of inventiveness may well be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass. The university - birthplace of such developments as high-speed photography, microwave radar, and cutting-edge computer research - is granted more patents than any other university, about 100 each year. Last year, more than 400 companies contributed $59 million to research efforts.

But a new program is taking hold here to point up the importance of the innovative spirit. One might call it a reinvention of invention's image.

The Lemelson-MIT prize, for which Mr. Lemelson is the benefactor, stands to set the record straight:

''From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to 'Back to the Future,' popular culture has traditionally portrayed inventors as mad scientists or evil geniuses,'' says Lester Thurow, professor of management and economics at MIT and chair of the prize program.

The goals of the Lemelson-MIT awards, which will be announced over the next month, are to change that perception, spread enthusiasm about science and technology among today's youth, and inspire young Americans to invent and innovate.

As Dr. Thurow frequently puts it: ''Invention is America's best jobs program.''

But the pep talk includes a warning: If Americans don't invent (and patent) things, other countries will - and will reap the benefits.

MIT student James Massie, winner of last year's Lemelson-MIT student prize, likes to view it in the positive. ''Instead of comparing the US to other countries, we should say 'Invention is our best asset, let's recognize it more,' '' he says.

Woodie Flowers, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who teaches Entrepreneurship 101, offers a more cultural view. ''Societies get the best of what they celebrate,'' he says. ''In this country, we celebrate sports stars and movie stars; they are showered with million-dollar salaries and media attention. So it follows that we have the best sports stars and actors.

''Imagine if we had the budget of 'Waterworld' and put that money and talent into making a physics text more understandable,'' he muses. ''The country worships the wrong idols,'' he says.

Flowers laments the fact that, as he sees it, society has migrated away from making education a top priority for everyone. However, ''we are now at the cusp of where we can change that,'' he adds, applauding the enthusiasm for the Internet. Technology, such as computer imagery, he says, will give a tremendous boost to education.

Although the Lemelson-MIT Prize is the largest prize awarded for American innovation ($500,000), other programs also honor inventors, particularly students.

The B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Program recognizes college students and faculty whose innovations, discoveries, and research are deemed ''outstanding.'' The program, administered by Inventure Place, home of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, encourages student inventors to learn about the United States patent process.

Westinghouse's Science Talent Search recognizes high school seniors, including inventors, and awards 10 scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $40,000.

The Duracell/National Science Teachers Association Scholarship Competition annually honors high school students who invent battery-run devices, such as a wallet that reads bills for visually impaired people.

Many smaller programs sponsored by foundations, associations, corporations, and educational institutions recognize innovative thinking, especially in engineering and design fields.

For student inventors, recognition programs provide support and validation. ''The Lemelson prize is important because we have to get the perception out that invention is rewarding,'' says Mr. Massie, the 1995 Student Prize-winner. But he points out that for a lot of inventors the reward is intrinsic. It comes from the thrill of inventing - thinking about how something might work and then making it work.

Massie invented the PHANToM, a human-to computer interface that established him as an entrepreneur. The thimble-like virtual reality device produced by his company, SensAble Devices, in Cambridge, Mass., allows users to ''feel'' objects as if they were actually there.

Invention can happen two ways, Massie explains. Sometimes there's a problem to solve and the idea is, ''Let's help humanity to find the solution.'' The other is what happened in his case: Inventors think up something ''cool'' and see if it will work. Then they see what it's good for.

James McLurkin, a candidate for last year's student prize and the inventor of robotic ants, views inventing similarly. ''It's difficult to direct inventive thinking. Things pop into your mind. If you don't have the time or money, sometimes you have to shelve it. In my case, design followed the goal.''

Mr. McLurkin's robotic ants are about the size of matchbooks, weigh slightly more than an ounce, and run on rechargeable batteries. ''You can imagine 25 years from now you'd have a group of them under your refrigerator picking up crumbs,'' Mr. McLurkin says, half joking.

The more-serious applications for the ants range from finding land-mines and carrying mini-cameras and microphones (the CIA has naturally expressed interest) to sorting recyclable materials in landfills.

Right now he is working on making the robots even smaller and more efficient - and dealing with the onslaught of media seeking interviews. Recognition at work.

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