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American Teens Say Computer Most, Television Least Important Inventions of 20th Century,
2002 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Finds

Inventors Outrank Politicians in Protecting Nation

Cambridge, MA, January 22, 2002 — The popularity of the television is sinking while that of the personal computer is rising, at least among American teens. And wireless devices such as cell phones, pagers and personal digital assitants are far more important to American teens than to their parents. These are some of the key findings of the latest Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey of Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating.

When asked to select the most important invention of the 20th century from among five choices—the personal computer, the pacemaker, television, wireless communications and water purification—nearly a third of teens cited the PC (32%), while a quarter chose the pacemaker (26%). Wireless communications ranked third (18%), garnering almost twice as many votes as the TV (10%). In fact, teens view the television as the least important invention of the 20th century behind the four other choices.

In contrast, adults ranked the television third (15%) and wireless communications last (10%). The pacemaker was the most important invention of the 20th century, attracting a third of adult responses (34%). It easily outranked the personal computer (26%), television (15%), water purification (11%) and wireless communications.

"The generational differences are quite striking," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "Teen preference for mobile devices over television—the opposite of their parents—is an interesting indicator of lifestyle changes ahead."

In Protecting Life and Liberty, Inventors Outrank Elected Officials
Also surprising is the level of importance Americans assign to inventors in protecting the nation. While Americans overwhelmingly agree that the military is "extremely" or "very important" for U.S. safety (96% teens, 95% adults), inventors followed closely (85% teens, 83% adults). Politicians rank last in importance among the three choices (66% teens, 53% adults).

"We often take for granted the skills and perseverance of scientists, engineers and technologists," commented Kristin Finn, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "After September 11, the fact that these people play a major role in protecting our quality of life is hard to overlook, and these findings show that."

Teens Want Parental Encouragement
Though often stereotyped as technology junkies consumed with pop-culture, video games and entertainment, America's youth agree (95%) that encouragement by parents to do well in school is "extremely" or "very important" in fostering their interest in science and inventing. In fact, parental encouragement ranked higher than purchasing computers (85%) and providing books and media (82%).

The findings of this year's Invention Index are consistent with the 2000 study, where more than half of teens surveyed (55%) stressed the importance of encouragement from parents to do well in school, compared to only 35% who said "buying computers, technology and educational equipment" is an excellent idea.

Other issues explored by this year's study include:

  • Reasons to consider becoming an inventor: Teens and adults say altruism is the principal reason to become an inventor (62% teens, 61% adults). A secondary reason for teens is to have fun (39%), while for adults it's making money (35%).
  • Hope for events in this lifetime: The majority of teens and adults agree they most want a cure for cancer (67% teens, 71% adults). Both ranked the elimination of world hunger second (52% adults, 46% teens), but teens are more interested than adults in seeing solar-powered cars replace gas-powered ones (28% vs. 22%) and in the ability to live on another planet (27% vs. 7%).
  • Reality television: When teens were asked who they would most want on their team for a reality television show such as "Survivor," inventors ranked high (31%), just behind athletes (50%).

About the Study
The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index has explored Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating since 1996. Previous topics that have been covered include:

  • Young Americans attitudes toward inventors and getting involved in invention and innovation (2001)
  • The importance of parents' and teachers' role in fostering invention and innovation in today's youth (2000)
  • The most profitable career areas for inventors (1999)
  • Areas of research and development supported by American taxpayers (1998)
  • Inventions that make life easier or more complex (1997)
  • Inventions Americans could not live without (1996)

The 2002 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Survey was conducted by RoperASW from a nationally representative sample of 1,012 adults and 500 teenagers. The interviews were conducted between December 14-18, 2001.

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