1999 INVENTION INDEX™
LEMELSON-MIT SURVEY FINDS HIGH SCHOOL
STUDENTS, THEIR PARENTS AGREE — AND DISAGREE — ON THE
MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY INVENTIONS
American Students Rank the Computer
#1; Parents Choose Antibiotics
Cambridge, MA, January 11, 1999 — The Lemelson-MIT
Program today released the first round of results from its annual
national "Invention Index" survey to determine public
opinion on the importance of various 20th century inventions. Among
other queries, the survey asked respondents to name which 20th century
invention they felt was most significant in each of the following
categories: Medicine, Environment and Energy, Telecommunications
and Computing, Industrial Manufacturing, Consumer Products and Leisure
and Entertainment. Notably, when asked what they felt would be the
most significant invention of the 21st century, parents and students
alike responded that technology to prevent natural disasters would
be the most important development of the next 100 years.
The Lemelson-MIT Program, which develops initiatives to encourage
young people to pursue careers in invention-related fields, polled
300 high school students and 300 of their parents to ascertain which
inventions of the past century they believed to be the most significant.
The survey found that while high school students and their parents
agree about the significance of many inventions, they disagree about
many others. Highlighted results of the Lemelson-MIT survey follow:
Antibiotics deemed most crucial medical advance
Students (46%) and parents (57%) believe the development of antibiotics
was the most important medical innovation of the 20th century (51%
combined). Students, however, felt the invention of the artificial
heart, limbs and other body parts was the most significant advance
(24%) twice as frequently as their parents (12%). Both groups agreed
that laser surgery (15% combined), the cure for polio (12% combined)
and diagnostic X-rays (4% combined) also played a major role in
the development of 20th Century medicine.
Recycling, solar power reveal split between
Students (39%) felt that recycling was the 20th century's most important
Environmental and Energy advance. Parents, however, most often chose
solar power (32%), closely followed by atomic energy (31%). Only
22% of students chose solar power and only 14% selected atomic energy.
Twenty-three percent of parents felt that recycling was the most
critical environmental advance of the 20th century. Both groups
valued air conditioning (14% combined) but surprisingly, more than
twice as many students (8%), than parents (3%), felt the catalytic
converter was the most significant invention.
The Internet dominates Telecommunications and
By an overwhelming margin, both high school students (87%) and their
parents (89%) believe the Internet to be the most important invention
in the realm of telecommunications and computing in the 20th century.
According to respondents in both groups, cell phones (6% combined),
Automated Teller Machines (4% combined), fax machines (2% combined)
and answering machines (1% combined) lagged far behind the World
Wide Web in importance.
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Students, parents divided over Industrial Manufacturing
Plastic, with 30% of the combined vote, edged out space travel (29%
combined) as the most important Industrial Manufacturing invention
of the 20th century. Thirty-six percent of students chose space
travel, 27% chose plastic, 18% selected assembly line production,
14% picked bar codes and 5% felt commercial aviation deserved the
honors. 34% of parents, on the other hand, thought plastic was the
most important invention, with space travel (22%) and assembly line
production (21%) nearly even.
The computer ranks easily as the most important
The personal computer, with 69% of students and 79% of parents ranking
it as the most important consumer product (74% combined), easily
outdistanced the microwave oven (10% combined), the contact lens
(9% combined), Velcro (4% combined) and pagers (3% combined). Students
felt the contact lens (14%) was much more important than did their
parents (3%). Not surprisingly, parents valued the microwave oven
(14%) more than twice as much as the high school students (6%) did.
Dr. Carmen Egido, Director and General Manager, Applications and
Content Architecture Lab at Intel Corporation, who is an advisor
to the Lemelson-MIT Program, commented on the computer's dominance.
"Students' and parents' ranking of computers as the most significant
invention of the 20th century, well above older, more ubiquitous
consumer technologies, reflects both the impact to date and the
perceived future potential of computers in people's lives,"
Parents place more importance upon television than do teenage children.
With 62% of the combined vote, television was judged to be the most
important invention in Leisure and Entertainment by both students
(53%) and parents (70%). Twenty-four percent of students, however,
chose compact disks, while only 13% of parents felt the change from
vinyl was critical to the development of the 20th century. Video/computer
games (12% combined) and credit cards (8% combined) rounded out
the poll. Notably, in-line skates failed to register among students
and yet these recreational items captured 1% of parents' votes.
Computers rule as the all-time #1 invention
of the 20th century
According to 34% of students and 27% of their parents, the computer
is the single most important invention of the 20th century, garnering
31% of the combined vote. Parents (36%) chose antibiotics as the
greatest invention of the past 100 years, but only 16% of students
selected the crucial medical breakthrough, leaving antibiotics with
26% of the combined tally, five percentage points behind the computer.
The Internet placed third with 14% of the combined vote and television,
surprisingly, finished fourth with only 9% of the combined vote
(12% of students and 6% of parents). Plastic (6% combined), recycling
(4% combined) and laser surgery (4% combined) also finished with
a significant share of the votes.
All other inventions of the 20th century combined for 8% of the
combined vote.Lemelson-MIT Board Chairman, economist and professor
Lester C. Thurow, offered an explanation for the disparity between
the opinions of students and those of their parents. "We tend
to think of miracles as inventions that come about during our lifetimes,"
Thurow said, "while what has been invented beforehand is simply
accepted as just the way things are. So, of course parents think
of antibiotics and plastics as wondrous, remembering what life was
like without them. Their children take such innovations for granted,
seeing computer technology like the Internet as 'miraculous' instead."
Survey respondents predict mankind will tame
Though they disagreed about 20th century inventions, parents and
students alike expressed 'miraculous' visions of inventions yet
to come. When asked to predict which invention of the 21st century
would prove to be the most significant, both groups (40% combined)
believed technology designed to prevent hurricanes, tornadoes and
earthquakes would have the greatest impact on our future. The electric
car, which placed second with 22% of the total vote, was valued
by students (24%) significantly more than by parents (19%). Living
machines that would produce their own inorganic food placed third
with 16% of the combined vote, and brain monitors (11% combined),
wearable computers (8% combined) and virtual reality entertainment
systems (8% combined) rounded out the field.
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994
by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife,
Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through
outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest
for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages
young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering,
technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded
by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire
College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance
and the University of Nevada, Reno.
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