Experts Concerned About Future of Invention

Washington confab releases report on maintaining an inventive society, awards US $500,000 prize to LED inventor

4 min read

Erico Guizzo is IEEE Spectrum's Digital Innovation Director.

12 May 2004--Before optoelectronics godfather Nick Holonyak Jr. was awarded a US $500 000 prize for inventiveness, a crowd of leading academics, business people, and decision makers gathered on 23 April at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., to examine the future of the United States as an inventive society, and they found reasons for concern.

The focus of the event was the presentation of a report, "Invention: Enhancing Inventiveness for Quality of Life, Competitiveness and Sustainability," which was cosponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Lemelson-MIT Program. The report concluded that while invention is the basic source of the economic well-being and quality of life enjoyed in the developed world today, society cannot take that premise for granted and must actively promote better conditions to encourage inventiveness and creativity.

Among several findings and recommendations, the report stressed the importance of understanding how the inventive mind works and of strengthening aspects of education that enhance inventiveness.

"We need to emphasize adventure, excitement, and mystery as much as the analytical and technical side of invention," said Merton C. Flemings, a materials science and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, and the director of the Lemelson-MIT Program.

The report's authors--56 individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, including history, cognitive science, psychology, engineering, medicine, and law--recommended that inventiveness be made an explicit goal of education at all levels and that curriculums include more hands-on workshops, problem-solving exercises, design contests, and other invention-related activities.

"Unfortunately, both the curriculum and the pedagogy today are essentially the same as [when] I was in school 40 years ago," said William Wulf, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and president of the National Academy of Engineering. Wulf participated in a panel following the study's summary.

He said engineering schools should cover curricula more rapidly and efficiently to create more room for other pressing content, such as courses on invention and the invention process.

Other recommendations of the report included enhancing the current patenting system, increasing public awareness and outreach activities related to invention, and promoting inventiveness that contributes to sustainable growth, especially in the developing world.

In poor countries, an inventor's work is much harder because of little funding for R and D and little interaction with other inventors, noted Julia Marton-Lefèvre, executive director of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) International, a nonprofit organization based in London that supports sustainable development projects.

According to the report, developing countries should give special attention to education reform to stimulate inventiveness and creativity, while banks, corporations, and international institutions should provide more support to local entrepreneurs and invention and innovation initiatives.

The report resulted from a series of workshops in which experts from various fields examined the topic of invention from the perspectives of history, cognitive science, education, intellectual property law, and sustainable development.

The Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late U.S. inventor Jerome H. Lemelson. With hundreds of patents to his credit, Lemelson is widely regarded as the most notorious practitioner of the so-called submarine patent. This is a vaguely worded patent application that is continually tweaked over many years without being issued, remaining submerged at the patent office until its claims suddenly describes a product in use. The patent is then awarded and the unsuspecting maker of the product is forced to pay for its infringement.

As controversial as Lemelson's tactics have been, his legacy includes an annual $500000 prize for invention and innovation, which was presented the evening of the National Academy's conference. This year's prize was given to Holonyak, 75, for the invention of the first practical light-emitting diode (LED). [For more on Holonyak, winner of the 2003 IEEE Medal of Honor, and his work on LEDs, see "Red Hot" June 2003.]

Holonyak, now a professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed the first LED in 1962 while working as a consulting scientist at General Electric Co.'s laboratory in Syracuse, N.Y.

Experimenting with semiconductors that could emit light, he decided to test an alloy of gallium arsenide phosphide. When he connected a piece of this mixed crystal to a transistor and applied a voltage, the crystal emitted light in the visible spectrum. The device was an end run around his competitors who were using pure gallium arsenide and producing only invisible infrared light. "I realized--oh, oh, I can work in the red part of the spectrum while my colleagues are working on the infrared part," Holonyak told IEEE Spectrum . "We operated this in October 1962," he said. "I put this together on the 9th of October, on the 10th of October we ran it, and on the 11th of October I wrote it in the [research] notebook."

Seeing Red

The red light-emitting diode (LED) developed by Nick Holonyak Jr. in October 1962 uses a crystal of gallium arsenide phosphide alloy--the small rectangular block on top of the gold-plated platform.

That very prototype is the precursor of the first commercially produced red LED, as well as the progenitor of most of today's alloy lasers and LEDs. Today, LEDs shine from alarm clocks to traffic lights to the giant NASDAQ electronic display in New York City's Times Square.

A second prize, the $100000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, went to Edith Flanigen, 75, for her pioneering work with molecular sieves, which are porous crystals that can separate molecules by size. Flanigen developed the first practical method for manufacturing a molecular sieve, called zeolite Y, which is now widely used in petroleum refining.

Among Flanigen's other inventions while working at Union Carbide in Tonawanda, N.Y., was a synthetic emerald, which the company turned into a line of jewelry, including an emerald ring that Flanigen wore to the awards event. After receiving the prize on stage, Flanigen acknowledged the collaboration of her many colleagues and said, "Thank you--it's been fun."

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