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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 the generations
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 Computing
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 Consumer Product
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," Egido noted.

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 mother nature
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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