DANA D. KELLEY: Inventors Day

Posted: February 9, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Since 1983, Feb. 11 has been observed as National Inventors Day.

It's a proper commemoration. Inventions change the world, for better and worse. And in the past 50 years, there have been a number of doozies, especially regarding communications technology.

Those older than 40 can well remember life without smartphones (invented 1992), websites (invented 1991) and email (invented 1972). Those under 25 cannot fathom such a life. That's a sea-change perspective in a short span of time, barely a generation.

You may be reading this on a printed sheet, or on an illuminated LED screen (invented 1977).

The date set aside for recognition is Thomas Edison's birthday, and with 1,093 U.S. patents to his credit, the Wizard of Menlo Park's given name is essentially synonymous with "inventor."

His biography is beyond inspiring. However, if the only anecdotal tidbit you recall is a widely circulated Facebook (invented 2004) post about Edison's mother, you swallowed a fiction (albeit an uplifting one). The story describes a young Thomas bringing a note home from school that his teacher said to give to his mother. "What does it say?" the child asks.

Mrs. Edison opens the letter, and with teary eyes, reads it aloud to him: "Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn't have good enough teachers to train him. Please teach him yourself."

Many years later, the post continues, Edison found the old note from his teacher and opened it to read: "Your son is mentally deficient. We cannot let him attend our school anymore. He is expelled."

While it's a heart-tugger of a tale, it's a prime example of something sounding too good to be true. The kernel of truth about Edison's education is that he was home-schooled by his mother. But there was no letter and no expulsion. She was outraged that a schoolmaster had insulted her son--in the poorest student prophecy ever, the teacher called Edison "addled"--and angrily pulled him out of school.

That the light bulb has become a universal icon of ideation is indicative of the magnitude of Edison's life-altering inventions.

But his first patent was a commercial failure. The reason? He tried to bring efficiency to politics by devising an electric vote-counting machine for the Massachusetts legislature. Unfortunately, lawmakers liked to manually cast and count votes because the ensuing delays allowed time for influencing colleagues.

Edison learned two critical lessons that apply to this day for innovative entrepreneurs: (1) some status quos intentionally eschew progress, and (2) "never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy."

His incandescent bulb exploited both points, literally bringing light to the lives of people everywhere, for which everyone was willing to pay. The now ubiquitous commodity commands astronomical utility and popularity. Americans buy some 2.5 billion light bulbs annually.

Many modern inventions have followed stratospheric paths to adoption, but none with a steeper trajectory than text messaging (invented 1992).

The statistics defy comprehension, evidenced in current events by the 50,000 texts reportedly exchanged between an FBI agent and lawyer. It turns out they're not that far from normal--one study showed the average consumer sends 72 texts per day. Based on approximately 10 months, the FBI pair would have averaged 83 daily texts.

Overall in the U.S., we send and receive 3 trillion texts every year, 8 billion a day. Text usage rates are inversely related to age, however. College-age Americans send eight times as many texts as my generation does. Unfortunately, they also tend to send more texts while driving.

And therein lies one of the "worse" aspects of a major invention.

It takes on average five seconds to read a text. In a vehicle traveling 60 mph, or 88 feet per second, a driver who averts his or her eyes for only three seconds travels the length of a football field. On a faster four-lane highway, a five-second text read can result in a distraction travel distance of 550 feet--a full tenth of a mile. Typing out a text with one hand on the wheel can take even more time, especially since texts can be much longer now than in previous years. The old 160-character SMS limits have been negated by app-driven texting, such as iMessage on Apple phones.

Distracted-driving statistics involving texting are tragic in cost of life and human suffering, especially among young drivers. While drunk driving and talking on the phone create increased risk of auto accidents, by four and five times respectively, texting and driving creates a 24-times risk. The risk goes up even higher for teen drivers as opposed to adults.

Arkansas, like 43 other states, bans texting while driving. Cognitively, 94 percent of teen drivers know it's dangerous and risky. Nearly four in 10 admit to doing it anyway. That results in 11 teenagers a day dying from texting-related vehicle crashes. And countless others hurt or injured. Inventors are trying to perfect a cell-phone jamming device for cars; consumers would more readily embrace technology that disables only texting, but not calling.

That's a hope to remember this Feb. 11.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 02/09/2018