What Makes An Inventor?

In this series of posts, I use Jon Gertner’s history of Bell Labs as a jumping-off point to explore 5 aspects of innovation.  This is the first post in this series.

Who gets to be an inventor, and why?  Is it purely innate genius, or do environment and luck play roles?  How might this have changed over time?

Bell Labs: Childhood and Invention

In The Idea Factory, author Jon Gertner examines one of these questions: how does childhood environment shape eventual inventors? 

Obviously common to many of Bell Labs’ scientists was their innate intelligence, but Gertner finds a more unusual thread to follow: childhood experience.  A large number of Bell Labs’ scientists, Gertner notes, grew up “in fly-speck towns,” and “Almost all of them had put [a makeshift home wireless set] together themselves” (p.38).  What relationship did growing up in a small town, and tinkering, have? 

Bell Labs physicist Charles Townes, “who’d been raised on a farm near Greenville, South Carolina,” outlines the idea best:

“To grow up that way, he would later explain, made you ‘pay attention to the natural world, to work with machinery, and to know how to solve practical problems and fix things innovatively, with what is on hand.’  In Townes’s view, those ‘farms and small towns are good training grounds for experimental physics’” (p.39).

Gertner bolsters the claim vis-a-vis Walter Brattain, co-inventor of the transistor, who likewise grew up in a small, rural town, and learned in his childhood to “take apart a car engine easily and put it back together with equal ease” (p.39). 

Finally, profiling Bill Baker (one of Bell Labs’ presidents), Gertner observes yet another parallel: while “Other Bell Labs scientists would attribute their laboratory aptitude to their youthful efforts to take apart car engines or rebuild radios,” Bill Baker helped his mother “pursue the perfect turkey feed,” and in doing so “found a crude but effective introduction to the precision of chemistry,” which was later his PhD topic (p.241). 

The Academic Literature

So how does this notion – that growing up in a small town pushed these men toward tinkering, which led them to careers as inventors – stack up against what we know from academic research? 

While the link between small-town childhoods and inventing appears to be unstudied in the literature, there is early evidence that childhood exposure to science (which would include tinkering) is instrumental in determining who goes on to invent.

Most pertinently, Alex Bell et al.’s working paper “The Lifecycle of Inventors” investigates this very question.[1]  They examine individual-level census data longitudinally, enabling a close look at inventors from childhood to patenting.  Their most relevant result investigates the link between an inventor and his/her parents’ inventions.

First, the authors calculate a “likeness” metric between each and every patent published in the U.S. – so an invention of a steering wheel would be close on this scale to an invention of a seatbelt, but far away from 3D glasses. 

Then, the authors look at pairs of parent and children inventors, finding that children are exponentially more likely to patent in their parents’ exact field (and then somewhat likely to patent in related fields).  While this result could have multiple interpretations, including the utilization of familial networks, it does lend possible support to the exposure hypothesis. 

Although Gertner’s small-town theory needs further investigation, there may very well be something to childhood science exposure.  If so, the educational policy implications would be both profound, and trivial to implement.  Two crumbs of evidence point in this direction; we should be eager to see if the trail leads anywhere.

[1] No public copy is presently available; this information is based on paper talks the authors have given at NBER and University of Chicago.


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