Curiosity and invention

“Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

That was Thomas Edison talking. Edison probably was the most prolific and successful inventor of our, or any, time and his statement emphasizes the importance of curiosity. In Edison’s case, that often meant research just for the sake of learning something new.

Curiosity has driven all of man’s inventiveness, from the first tools to whatever may come tomorrow.

I have always been curious; a characteristic that has been a lot of fun for me, if sometimes annoying to others. Perhaps it is because of that lifelong habit that I am dismayed to see so little current interest in research for the sake of curiosity. Demand for specific, applicable outcomes now drives nearly all of science.

I wrote an editorial about curiosity for the May issue of The Southern Aviator, a sister publication to General Aviation News. No sooner had it gone to the printer than I saw a column in “Smithsonian” magazine about the Lemuelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. That clumsy title is typical of scientific organizations, but a current traveling exhibit from the center is not. Its title: “Invention at Play.”

The exhibit makes the case that invention and innovative thinking are not characteristics of a few inspired visionaries but, rather, that they are “an inextricable part of being human.” They do need fostering, however, which is why the center reaches out both to adults and children, encouraging all of us to think inventively.

Jerome Lemuelson found inspiration everywhere. When he was a boy he designed an illuminated tongue depressor for his physician father. By the time he died, in 1997, he held 594 patents, including some for vital parts of VCRs, ATMs, camcorders, fax machines and cordless telephones. He invented the automated voice system that warns pilots of bad weather. He invented the propeller beanie, too. His ideas underlie an astonishing array of things we use every day. As did Edison, he liked to credit it all to curiosity.

At the old Bell Laboratories, curious minds were allowed to roam unfettered through almost any experiment that a scientist could imagine. Many of them led nowhere, but a few changed the way we live. There, curiosity produced lasers, communications satellites and Claude Shannon’s surprisingly universal Information Theorem, without which computer networks might not have evolved and through which we have a better understanding of language. It gave us the transistors that developed into the chips that control things from cars to computers, home thermostats to whole houses and, increasingly, airplanes.

Albert Einstein thought that his General Theory of Relativity had no practical uses, yet from it we learned how to place satellites where we want them. Thanks to it, we can send missions not only to the Moon and Mars, but beyond our solar system. Indirectly, it gave us GPS, used to guide a rapidly growing number of the airplanes we fly.

Michael Faraday, the 19th century scientist who discovered electricity as we know it today, was asked what possible use it could have. His wise reply: “What is the value of a newly born baby?” Faraday, like many other generalists, knew that he had learned something fundamental and understood that it would be valuable, long before anyone figured out how.

Those brilliant inventors, Wilbur and Orville Wright, learned fundamental facts about flight; facts that had escaped the most famous scientists of their day. Just as Faraday had no concept of television or the Internet, the Wrights surely couldn’t imagine 747s spanning oceans and winging across continents, carrying hundreds of passengers at a time. They did, however, realize that they had discovered the very basics of aeronautical science, from which the sophisticated world of today’s aviation evolved and from which tomorrow’s will come.

Certainly most basic research fails to put any money in the bank but, as Edison commented, even work that leads up blind alleys increases understanding. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that curiosity – exploration, if you will – is no luxury. Rather, it defines us as a civilization. It yields an inspirational dividend that, directly or indirectly, benefits every member of society. Its impact on our self-image, confidence and economic stature is immeasurable. At least half of America’s economic growth during the past hundred years has been the direct result of innovation, which is just another way of saying curiosity that stumbled onto a defined purpose.

The curiosity of Faraday, Edison, the Wrights, Einstein, Shannon and nearly everyone who has made basic discoveries almost always has been driven by confidence and optimism. They reached into the unknown without fully formed ideas of what they would find there. Good things resulted from their willingness to look beyond the familiar.

One of mankind’s oldest characteristics is simple observation, with an open mind and without a plan. What an astounding privilege that is.

It also carries responsibility. Simply because we are human we have ideas. It is important to explore them, for ideas live and die. They blossom if acted upon, but they wilt if ignored or discouraged. Because we are human we have the responsibility to encourage curiosity and the ideas it engenders, not necessarily because we see profit but because an unbridled and fearless thirst for knowledge inspires us as people.

A character in Rudyard Kipling’s delightful “Just So Stories” is the Elephant Child, whose “insatiable curiosity” gets him into (and out of) all sorts of scrapes but, in the long run, leads to better lives for all around him.

If you are a pilot, didn’t your interest in flight begin with curiosity about it?

Encourage curiosity wherever you find it. As with Kipling’s Elephant Child, it just might lead to better lives for all of us.

Thomas F. Norton is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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