– Patrick J. Kiger is the co-author of two books, “Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions and Lore that Shaped Modern America” and “Oops: 20 Life Lessons From the Fiascoes That Shaped America“. This article originally appeared on Second Act. The views expressed are his own. –
Try this free-association exercise. When you hear the word inventor, what names pop into your head? Chances are, you’ll think of some long-dead genius from the 19th or early 20th century, such as Thomas Edison, creator of the phonograph, motion pictures and the first practical light bulb, or Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
Or maybe, if you’re a little more knowledgeable about the history of technology, you’ll summon up Nikola Tesla, inventor of the alternating current mode of power generation, whose brainchild flows through the outlet that lights your home and illuminates the computer screen upon which you are reading this. Or you might think of Guglielmo Marconi, the early 20th century tinkerer credited with inventing the wireless communication technology that led to everything from garage door openers to the smartphone clipped to your belt.
The inventors of the baby boom generation, in contrast, mostly have labored in comparative obscurity, putting the lie to 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that the world would beat a path to a person’s door if he or she built a better mousetrap.
You might recognize 64-year-old Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the artificial heart, and 53-year-old Ajay Bhatt, a co-inventor of the USB port, but only because they’ve been plucked out of the lab and featured in TV commercials. (In Bhatt’s case, his employer, Intel, reportedly had to hire an actor to portray him because he was too busy actually working.) You also might recognize Dean Kamen, the 59-year-old inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter, but probably without realizing that Kamen — the boomer generation’s equivalent of Thomas Edison — also is responsible for hundreds of other inventions, including the implantable insulin pump and the portable dialysis machine.