For the most part, we live in an invented world. Take a minute to look around you. Probably most of what you see whether it's bricks and glass or books and televisions was invented at some point in history.
Every schoolchild learns of famous inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney. But invention is an ongoing process. Even if they might not be as well-known, countless people are still inventing things that make life better.
You, too, can be an inventor.
That's the premise behind the "Invention at Play" exhibit at Discovery Gateway children's museum. Developed by and on loan from the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota, the exhibit focuses on toys, games and activities that develop skills scientists and inventors use to create new things.
It has three main areas:
The Invention Playhouse is an imaginative space where "curiosity is king." It features things such as a wobbly surface for building towers, and a ramp with magnetic kitchen utensils lets you tinker with design. Colorful puzzles offer solving and cooperation opportunities. You can invent your own wind-powered creations and see how they fly or spin.
Playful Approaches to Invention tells the stories behind many of the things we use every day, like Velcro, Post-It Notes and Kevlar.
Issues in Play Past, Present and Future lets you take a closer look at popular toys from the past and learn how child's play shapes learning.
"Play matters," says Susan Bellomy, director of marketing and external relations at the museum. "There are surprising parallels between the play of children and the creative process of invention. Thoughtful play can lead to lifelong creative talents."
At a media and museum member preview of the exhibit, several inventors and scientists stopped by to talk about their inventions and the process of inventing.
Jerry Bowman, a professor of mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University, invents "unique airplanes." He's come up with a micro plane that is about the size of your hand, but now he's working on a solar-powered plane. Think of the implications of that, he says. "You could fly indefinitely using the sun's energy and not need refueling."
He thinks they are about a year away from having an unmanned plane with a wingspan of about 30 feet; manned solar-powered planes are much further down the road.
For him, the inventing process begins with questions. "We define what we need to do and then brainstorm ways to do it. Maybe there will be 50 or a hundred ways. That's the fun part, and it's good to have people with imaginations there."
Then they compare and evaluate options and begin to build and test.
His advice to kids? "Spend more time with Legos and less time with video games. Make sure you take math classes in school."
His advice to parents? "Find old and broken things and let your kids take them apart. Let them learn how things work."
Thomas Laakso has invented a lot of different things for skiers. His Met5 heated jacket won Time Magazine's Invention of the Year in 2001.
"It involves the whole new area of electronic textiles," he says. "We work with fibers that are washable and wearable yet can work with electronic technologies." With the jacket, you simple push on the logo to turn it on, and you can control the level of heat you need depending on what your body is producing.
Laakso, who works with Black Diamond Equipment based in Park City, has also had "an integral part in developing a backpack version of the Avalung, which can save lives in an avalanche."
Laakso followed his passion into invention. "I have a passion for skiing. Ever since first grade, I've told people I wanted to work for a ski company." His career path took him into plastics engineering, where he started out by making boots and skis.
"You have to like what you do," he advises. "You'll be doing it for a long time."
Rebecca Davidson needed to solve a problem. "I love to do art activities with my kids, and we like to use markers. But I would get so frustrated because it seemed like the caps would get lost or get left off the markers and they would dry out. I thought, there has to be a better way.
She began making clay models of a simple holder. Made of silicone, it comes in a strip with places for four, eight or 10 markers. "You can do them in a loop or string them together. They are portable. We are just starting to bring them to market. But I think they will save a lot of time."
Glen Ernstrom, a post-doc fellow at the University of Utah, is working with neurontransmissions in worms. "We're trying to figure out the basics of learning and behavior at the molecular level."
They work with worms because they have very simple nervous systems. "As we get a handle on how it signals, we hope what we learn will extend to more complex systems like humans."
Ernstrom got interested in genetics in high school. He encourages future scientists to "look around you. See nature. See all the amazing things. Ask questions. Find out how stuff works."
The "Invention at Play" is a great place to start, he says.
"It's fun to see so many people animated by the process of discovery," says Ray Grant, director of programs and guest experiences at the museum. "There's a great spirit of discovery in inventive play. I think we all have an obligation to play, and through play to discover what our world is all about."
He hopes people take away the idea that "anyone can be an inventor."
And what might they invent? What does the world need next? At the exhibit, guests young and old alike have a chance to write an idea for an invention on a Post-It Note and stick it on the wall. "At the end, we will go through them all, pick one and see if our staff can come up with a version of it," says Bellomy.
Some might be more challenging that others. On opening night, these were among the suggestions: a car that runs on happy thoughts, windshield wipers for glasses, a two-level, 24-cupcake transporter, food that makes people smart.
One child would like broccoli that tastes good; another wants a car than can fly. A senior citizen would like a talking pillbox that could remind you to take your medicine.
Other ideas include a thing to let you see through walls; self-refrigeration cars; a tube you can stand in and turn into anything you want; a transportable, battery-powered baby food blender.
Somewhere down the road, we may see some of these things. Maybe they will be made by kids who visit this exhibit. Maybe those kids will go on to do other things.
But at the exhibit they have a very good chance of learning two important things:
"A mind once stretched by a new idea," said Oliver Wendell Holmes, "never regains its original shape."
What: Invention at Play
Where: Discovery Gateway, 444 W. 100 South
When: Through Aug. 31
How much: Free with museum admission, which is $8.50 for Utahns, $9.50 for others; group discounts available.
E-mail: [email protected]