Read an Excerpt
By Susan Casey
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-471-66086-8
Getting an Idea
Imagine living in 1900. You would know about the lightbulb and the steamship. You could see fireworks shows and ride in a train. You could use a safety pin, invented in 1849, a cash register, invented in 1883, and a zipper, invented in 1893. But you would have to wait three years to see the Wright Brothers fly their airplane, ten years to listen to a radio broadcast, fifty-one years before you and your family could watch a black-and-white television, seventy-seven years to use a personal computer, and eighty-nine years to play a video game. Boy, things have changed-thanks to inventions.
All inventions begin with an idea. An inventor looks at an everyday problem and creates a solution. Inventors think about new ways to do things, and some of those inventors are kids.
Even before 1900, kids were inventing things. Here are two examples.
In 1864, when he was fifteen years old, George Westinghouse worked in his father's factory, where he experimented with ways to improve steam engines. Four years later he gained a patent for a rotary steam engine.
In 1850, twelve-year-old Mattie Knight of New Hampshire, a girl who was always using her tools to make playthings for her brothers, witnessed an accident at a cotton mill where her brothers worked. A piece of machinery broke off and injured one of the workers. In response, she invented a safety device that the mill owner used to prevent similar accidents. Over her lifetime, Mattie gained twenty-seven patents.
Inventions are new, and they are not obvious. In other words, not just anyone can dream up inventions. When people see an invention, they might say, "Wow, that's great! I've never seen that before. Maybe I could use it."
Some revolutionary inventions, such as the lightbulb, the radio, engines that power trains or automobiles, or the telephone, completely change the way we do things. Others, such as inline skates, the ballpoint pen, or binoculars, improve certain aspects of our lives.
Inventions take many forms. An invention can be an item with no moving parts, like a pencil. It can be a machine, such as an elevator, or a new variety of plant-for example, a tomato. It can be a design for something, such as a chair, or a new concept, like an ice cream cone. It can also be a process, a series of steps. The steps can lead to the production of a drug to fight cancer or other illnesses or to the recipe for a new kind of salad dressing. A process can even be the series of steps to play a game or program a computer.
Inventions that improve on existing inventions are called innovations. The bicycle, for example, is an old idea. Ancient Chinese drawings show two-wheeled vehicles. An Egyptian obelisk is carved with a hieroglyph of a man on a bar mounted on two wheels. When the modern bicycle was invented in 1790, it didn't have pedals. People moved the vehicle by pushing it with their feet. In 1839, when modern pedals were invented, bicycles became much more popular, but riding on wheels made only of metal was a bit rough. With the invention of air-filled tires in 1888, bikes became much more comfortable. Since then, there have been many more innovations in bicycles. Even as you read this, items that we use every day are being improved-everything from televisions and washing machines to tennis racquets and car engines.
Look for a Problem to Solve
What can you invent? How can you come up with ideas that lead to an invention? Thinking of ideas for an invention can be an everyday activity. All year long, we do things over and over again. We eat, sleep, do our chores, go to school, play sports, care for others, listen to music, use the computer, go to the store, talk on the phone, and send messages via computer. Each of our activities is an area that can benefit from inventions. In 1860, the future Sierra Club founder, John Muir, at age seventeen, invented a study desk that automatically turned the pages of a book. Muir displayed his well-crafted invention that year at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair.
You will most likely have ideas for inventions that solve problems in your daily life. You're an expert on your chores and on things your family likes or hates to do. You know what works well or doesn't, what's fun or hard. If you live on a farm, you're more likely than a city kid would be to invent something to help with farm chores. If you ride a bike or play soccer, football, or basketball, you may think of inventions related to sports. Kids who are crazy about music or computers usually focus their creativity on those areas. If your parents work in advertising, as plumbers or chemists, in construction, or at any other type of job, you probably know more than you realize about these fields. Take advantage of the knowledge that's available in your own house or community.
When inventors look at the world around them and see a problem, they think about how to solve it. For example, Marion Donovan invented the first disposable diaper in 1951. You know the problem that this solved! No more washing dirty diapers. So, be aware of people's problems or needs when you think of ideas for inventions.
If you're like most kids, you'd like your chores to be easier. Think about these activities and the tools you use to perform them. Almost anything around the house can be improved-brooms, rakes, dishwashing sponges, book bags, shovels, or scissors. The list goes on and on.
Break Problems into Smaller Parts
Problems can often be broken down into separate parts. The whole idea of feeding a pet or polishing the floor may seem like a hassle. You may not like anything about it, but what do you focus on to make it better? Think about it. What exactly is the most annoying aspect of feeding the dog, the cat, or the bird? Or of cleaning the floor? Is it that you don't like having to do it every day? Or that your dog or cat nudges you when you try to put food in the bowl? Maybe you don't like cleaning up afterward?
The Edible Pet Spoon
Suzanna Goodin was a first-grader at Hydro Elementary School in Hydro, Oklahoma, in 1987. She didn't like feeding her cats, Cinnamon and Ginger. The cat food stuck to the spoon and was hard to get off. When her twin brother, Sam, told her he was trying to invent something to enter in the Weekly Reader Invention Contest, she thought, What if I invent a spoon that I don't have to wash? What if I could make a spoon the cats could eat? She talked to her mom about it, then made a small spoon out of dough, and baked it. For her invention of the Edible Pet Spoon, Suzanna won the Grand Prize of the Weekly Reader Invention Contest in 1987. (This contest no longer exists, but many other contests have taken its place.)
Think about which part of an activity or a job is really the problem. Is the task boring, or does it take too long? Think of how you can make it go more quickly or make it fun. Is something too heavy to carry or too hard to reach? Focus on what might make it easier to carry or reach. Is it too messy? Think of ways to protect yourself from the mess or devise a cleaner way to do the same job. If you look at what annoys you most about the problem, you can focus on finding a specific solution.
Sit and Go
Have you ever had to wheel your suitcase for a long distance and you just wanted to sit down for a minute? Well, Renee Steinberg, of Brooklyn, New York, decided to do something about that. She invented Sit and Go, a folding chair attached to a rolling suitcase. It's a seat for travelers. She was a 2004 National Finalist in the Craftsman/NSTA Young Inventors Awards Program.
Alyssa Zordan was a seventh-grader at Torrington Middle School in Torrington, Connecticut, when her science teacher, Mr. Fasciano, challenged her and her classmates to become inventors. Alyssa was thinking about the assignment when she noticed that her grandmother almost slipped as she walked with her cane up the steps to Alyssa's house. She also thought about how her brother's running shoes had spikes on the bottom so that he could get a good grip on the track as he ran. She put the two ideas together to create a retractable metal tube with spikes on the bottom that fit over a cane to help the elderly walk on ice. She called it the Grip Stick. She designed it, then her dad, a shop teacher, helped her build it. During the process she used a metal lathe and a milling machine, and her dad helped her with welding. "I just wanted to win the school contest," said Alyssa. And she did. She also won first place in the grade 6 through 8 division of the 2004 Craftsman/NSTA Young Inventors Awards Program.
Think about Improving Something You Already Enjoy
Kids have all sorts of hobbies and interests. Think about your hobby or about the sport you play. In 1963, while in his junior high school wood shop class, eighthgrader Tom Sims thought of something he liked to do. He made a ski-board, attached straps, and headed for the snow. Eventually, he formed a company to manufacture it and helped to launch the sport of snowboarding.
Sports are a great area for invention. Think about what aspect of a sport is scary or unsafe or hard to do. Can you imagine something to make it easier or more fun? Or a safety device that would make it better?
The Trahan Torso Protector
At the Invent Iowa 2003 State Invention Convention, fourth-grader Kevin Trahan, of Dubuque, Iowa, submitted a life jacket-like vest that he called the Trahan Torso Protector. "A lot of kids are scared of the ball," said Kevin, "but with this, they won't be." Kids playing baseball would wear his vest to protect their chests from balls that are hit or thrown at them. "If they wear it," said Kevin, "it doesn't interfere with their swing, and if a ball hits them right over the heart, they don't get hurt or die."
The Retractable Bicycle Fender
Kevin Sellars, of Huntington Beach, California, was a seventh-grader when he created the Retractable Bicycle Fender. Kevin knew that many kids who performed jumps and tricks didn't want fenders on their bikes. Yet Kevin had watched a bicyclist get a very muddy shirt after riding a bike with no fender through a puddle. Kevin worked with his godfather, Ben Viola, in Viola's machine shop to make a retractable fender. The four sections of Kevin's fender pull out when fully extended. He was a winner in the 2003 Invent America! Student Invention Contest.
Music is an important part of many people's lives. Some people listen to music, and others play it. Some want to invent instruments that make new sounds. Many would like to make their instruments easier to play. Yet others turn their thoughts to inventing.
The Automated Page-Replacing Contrivance
When Christopher Cho, of East Setauket, New York, was in high school, he played the viola, studied at the Juilliard School of Music Pre-College division, won the viola concerto competition in 1995, and performed solo with the Juilliard Pre-College Symphony Orchestra. To make it easier to turn pages of music without interrupting his performances, Christopher invented the battery-powered Automated Page- Replacing Contrivance. When he pressed on a foot pedal, a spring turned and the top sheet of his music would drop, allowing him to see the next page and to keep playing. INVENT IOWA, coordinated by the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, is an annual statewide invention program open to students in grades K through 12 who live in Iowa. Over thirty thousand students participate each year in the program, which began in 1987. He got the idea by watching how food snacks dropped in vending machines. He was a 1996 inductee into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors.
Let's not leave out toys. There's always room for more toys, and some kids are busy thinking up ideas for new ones.
The Light Hand
Shahid Minipara, of San Francisco, came up with the idea of a toy that puts lights on the ends of your fingers, so he made a drawing of his idea and entered the drawing into Wild Planet Toys Inc.'s Kid Inventor Challenge. The company liked the idea, made it into a product called Light Hand, and sold it in stores across the country. On the package is a quote by Shahid: "It's cool to have lights at your fingertips, huh?"
Four Southern California kids formed a team called the Wave Riders when they created Boogie-2-Boogie, a wave-riding board for two. It's fun but also safe for kids. Attached to the nose is a light that's controlled by a transmitter held by a parent on shore. If it's time for the kids to come out of the water, the parent keys the transmitter, which triggers a flashing red light. That alerts the wave-riding duo. The team included sisters Amy, 13, and Alyssa Hansen, 10, and their friends Nicholas Johnsen, 12, and his sister Kaycee, 10. They were the TOYchallenge 2004 winners. Hasbro, one of the sponsors, made action figures of the team members as prizes.
Maybe computers are your favorite hobby. There are plenty of opportunities to invent things that relate to computers. In the mid-1960s, when computers were large machines used only in offices, thirteen-year-old Steve Wozniak of Sunnyvale, California, built his own computer, a machine that could play tic-tac-toe. He was interested in electronics and was later president of the electronics club at Homestead High School. For the next ten years, he continued building computers in his garage, and in 1977, he presented the Apple II, the personal computer that launched a technology revolution and brought computers to most homes. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2000. Other computer kids are following in his footsteps.
Excerpted from Kids Inventing! by Susan Casey Excerpted by permission.
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