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Inventing on Decline

Science: Wanna be an inventor? Don't bother

Jeffrey MacMillan for USN&WR

Posted 7/7/05
By Thomas Hayden

It's a feeling all too common to anyone who has ever dreamed of being a great innovator: All the really good stuff has already been invented. Pressing on regardless, surely, is what separates the Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Edisons from the rest of us. Or is it?

Sitting there reading this on a computer screen, listening to your iPod, and taking calls on your cellphone, it's hard to believe that we're not living in the golden age of invention. But a pair of new reports suggests that coming up with new ideas is getting harder every year.

In an analysis to be published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif., tracks the rate of innovation through history. Plotting a timeline of 7,200 major technological advances dating to the Renaissance against world population, he found that the number of key inventions per person actually peaked in 1873 and has been on the decline ever since. In a similar analysis of U.S. patent records dating back to 1790, Huebner found that Americans reached their peak inventiveness in 1915. Despite ever greater education and research funding, Huebner told the British science magazine New Scientist, he expects per capita technological advance to hit medieval rates by 2024.

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