INVENTIONS HAVE led our civilization. In fact, our civilization consists of inventions. Millions of them all together comprise civilization.
As I stated last week, many inventions involve a time-saving component - the intense desire to save time to accomplish a task results in an invention.
So, one way to look at an invention is to ask if it saves time. An intuitively instructional example is the circular saw invented by Tabitha Babbitt, a Quaker from Harvard, Mass., born in 1784. Babbitt was inspired to invent the circular saw after seeing two strong men sweating to work a pit saw. She observed that half of their back-forth motion was wasted and wasn't contributing to cutting the wood. Her concept of a circular saw eliminated the 50 percent waste of the push-pull saw.
As you see in the stores like Home Depot and Lowes, hundreds of varieties of circular saws are marketed. And they all came from her original invention.
Now, let's change our observation point a bit. Our civilization is built on millions of inventions starting from the simple ax 3.4 million years ago to today's dazzling arrays of machines. However, we need to take a look and observe these inventions from a top down view. That is to categorize each invention into functional boxes.
Inventors are the driving engine of our civilization. The more people join the ranks of inventors this nation greatly benefits, and our industry will rapidly re-grow. The United States was the world top producer of the manufactured products during the period after World War II to the early 1970s.
From that enviable post, we steadily descended by eliminating manufacturing, and buying goods from the cheap-labor nations until we now owe the world a staggering $20 trillion.
The number one reason for this manufacturing decline is the culture of looking down on people who worked on the factory floors. Despite the fact that factory workers, or so-called blue-collar workers, had to work in the relatively uncomfortable environment (hot, noisy, dusty, oily or even toxic or all of the above), the group comprised the majority of the American middle class, on which our democracy stood. Their income, stable family structure and political alignment all supported this country's society.
Inventors were respected then. Factory people knew that inventors were essential to prosperity as they continued to develop new inventions that brought higher income to the middle class. However, starting around the 1950s, the popularity of being a blue-collar worker began to fade. Parents didn't want their children to work in factories when they grew up. They felt that opportunity for advancement was limited. Instead children were pushed to receive as much higher education as they could afford, and were expected to work in offices that seemed to offer higher advancement opportunity.
True wealth is created through farming, fishing, mining and manufacturing. Of the four, manufacturing is the one that continues to produce wealth without fear of depleting natural resources. The loss of manufacturing is indeed a national tragedy caused by short-sighted economic calculation, that if someone is willing to make the product cheaper, let us buy from him instead of making it here. So we killed our factories. And, sadly, the people who manned these factories and managed them. Now we are not able to manufacture even if our lives depend on it.
The second significant reason is the issue of invention methodology itself. Inventors are creative people. They are normally quite bright, hard working and insightful. However, working with other inventors or networking with many other inventors are not their forte. They normally are secretive, and keep ideas close to the vest. As the result, a science to make invention efficient and relatively failure-free never got developed. One cannot go to a school and learn the science to invent.
Last week's column was my first hint of the chapter to come, in which I pointed out that saving time is one of major components of the purpose of inventions. You readers know the currently fashionable word called space-time continuum. It is used to express the world we live in terms of pseudo-mathematical language. The popular comic strip Dilbert uses it very often. In some sense inventions are our battle to both shrink the passage of time, and the expanse of space.
So, now you may be getting some idea of our attempt to systemize the invention process. First of all, instead of looking at each problem and develop a solution for it, just as thousands of inventors did throughout the civilization, why don't we look from top down? Let's categorize an invention in terms of what it intends to do in terms of human space-time continuum.
Is that a fly on the wall or a drone?
The technology of designing drones has been steadily and fast advancing in the past 10 years. We can buy a quad-rotor GPS Controlled Helicopter Model Blade QX350 for $400, and equip it with a light-weight camera such as GoPro for $250, and there you are in business of aero-surveillance.
The drone can fly over and send pictures of whatever you wish to see from the sky above. Already many small businesses have started to provide photos of properties for sale for the real estate brokers. If the size of entire helicopter/camera combination is within a few feet square, one can easily notice what it is doing provided that safety is carefully observed. That is, that contraption shouldn't fall down on someone and injure the person.
The issue, however, is the speed with which these drones are being miniaturized. Drones used in warfare are similar in size to airplanes. However, drones used for taking pictures of properties are less than 3 feet-square. When do we end up developing a drone the size of a fly? The fly-sized drone would fly in a targeted room and shut the power down. Only the audio or video sensor will be functioning, and would transmit whatever it hears and sees. People used to say "I wish I were a fly on the wall there."
That future is here now. Although a drone the size of a fly isn't quite ready, prototypes larger than that are already in the works.
This is no laughing matter. The protection of privacy would become extremely difficult if not impossible. Readers, think hard about how we can protect our privacy.
Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.