Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Masters of Invention

We live in a glorious time. There is a re-emerging trend of home-based, maverick-style inventing. It's purposeful (most of the time), it's fulfilling, and it's fun. It's Do-It-Yourself. It's a Maker Culture and it's thriving.
Maker culture is a term that refers to a growing community of hobbyists and professionals dedicated to making their own functional devices, whether it be technological gadgets, open source hardware and software, fashion apparel, home decorating, or nearly any other aspect of physical life. The movement stems from a direct reaction to a consumer culture in which most products have become steadily homogenized and local industry has given into big box retailing of dull products made with cheap foreign labor. One of the results of the culture shift has been the fact that some of us have forgotten how to make hardly anything other than dinner and house plants, and a few of us have even forgotten how to do that much. Maker culture represents the desire of individuals to return to a lifestyle that includes a person making their own life tools and understanding how the machines that we depend on operate. - Todd McCall
Of course we've all heard that necessity is the mother of invention. In our day and age of pre-packaged and disposable need fulfillment, very few of us feel any necessity at all. If we have a need can usually just pop out to the store or order something on line. Ta da. Done.

But our need to create and invent perhaps goes deeper than that. As Julie M. Fenster writes in The Spirit of Invention,
Invention is more than just an occasional necessity for human beings; it is an impulse that helps to define the species. It emerges in the individual as a reaction to the splendid frustration of one's surroundings, a response as basic in most people as having children: to leave a mark and give a gift, perchance for the better, to the future.
When supporting creativity and inventiveness in our kids, it's best to simply provide them with a lot of time and raw materials, perhaps throw in a little inspiration now and again, and let it all percolate until they come up with their own fresh ideas. Although you can "seed" problems, the most exciting problems  to solve are the ones we think up ourselves... or the real ones that pop up in our day-to-day living.

If your child is really into inventing and inventions and who invented what (and why and how), then there are some great books on the market.

The irrepressible Marcia Williams has a comic-like book (okay, it *is* a comic) called Three Cheers for Inventors (or titled elsewhere as "Hooray for Inventors"). "Dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, this latest wonderful offering from Marcia Williams is full of her characteristic humour. Packed with cartoon-strip illustrations and short biographies, it looks at the discoveries of many famous - and not so famous - inventors from around the world, including Leonardo da Vinci, Antonio Meucci, Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, Thomas Edison, James Watt and many of their predecessors. Three cheers for inventors!"

DK's The Brainwaves also have an entertaining book on inventions titled How Nearly Everything Was Invented. "This is a brilliant book bursting with big ideas. Meet the Brainwaves, hilarious little mischief makers with big ideas. Pint-sized pals who'll show you around and tell you all about key inventions, the breakthroughs that lead to them and spectacular spin offs which followed ...When was the wheel first used? Who were the bright sparks that thought of the light bulb? And what connects a teapot to a 400 kph train? Find out all about more than 300 key inventions that changed the world (and lead to almost everything else that's ever been invented). Fantastic fold-out pages reveal the who, what, when, where and why of each invention and explain the way it transformed the way we live."

Usborne has a book titled The Story of Invention that is quite kid-friendly. "This book explains how, when and why the ingenious inventions which surround us were created, from simple spectacles to complex computers. It covers such diverse subjects as toilets, bread, Braille, parachutes and jeans, alongside more traditional 'inventions' such as aeroplanes, microwaves and computers. The development of each invention is thoroughly detailed over each double page, showing not only how and why the invention was created, but how they have been influenced by other discoveries over the ages. It is humorously illustrated by Adam Larkum. It contains a full glossary of technical terms and internet-links to encourage further learning."

The Horrible Science people have a book or two on inventions (I haven't read them, so you would be going in blind... but they definitely won't be dry and dusty).

"Readers will discover why someone invented the bottom-stabbing bike saddle and why you would need a toilet snorkel. With a fantastic new cover look and extra horrible bits at the back of the book, this best-selling title is sure to be a huge hit with a new generation of "Horrible Science" readers."

DK has a fabulous new book titled Ideas that Changed the World: Incredible Inventions and the Stories Behind Them. The book is categorized into six sections: Genius, Great Gizmos, Handy Gadgets, On the Move, Explore, and Culture. Within each section is a two-page spread on each of 14 to 24 specific and relevant items. Not only is there information on DNA, on antibiotics, and the light bulb, there are also pages dedication to the LEGO brick, Jacques Cousteau, and Steve Jobs. It's a fantastic resource for curious-about-our-world kids and adults.

This is an American-centric book, but it's still worthy reading none-the-less. The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers Who Formed Our Nation. Primarily a text-based book, best suited for the confident reader, it deals with the twin ideas of innovation and progress. "The Spirit of Invention is the tale of America's history of innovation, told in an engaging narrative style by a captivating historian and storyteller. Supported by a vast collection of archival material—photographs, newspaper clippings, and illustrations—Julie M. Fenster captures a group most Americans know nothing about: the dreamers and thinkers who found the need for a product, be it practical or fanciful, and saw it through to its creation. The book is an entirely fresh and fascinating examination of innovation as an innate force, inspiring unsung people to do magnificent things."

If you'd like stories about Canadian inventors, there is a book for kids titled Canada Invents by Susan Hughes (WOW! Canada). It seems to be out of print, but you may find it kicking around the stacks at your local library. It's not a brilliant book, by any means, but it does have some interesting and sometimes surprising information in it.

There are also books about inventors that are hands-on, such the Nomad Press series Amazing Inventions You Can Build Yourself. If you are looking for books, though, to inspire inventing and creating, look no further than William Gurstelle's books such as Whoosh, Boom, Splat: The Garage Warrior's Guide to Building Projectile Shooters or Backyard Ballistics.

Although these are not technically "inventing" books, they are books about how things work and how to make things work. And they are great fun.

Ken Denmead of GeekDad has written a GeekDad book, which is a project book for kids and parents to work on together. (I know what Santa is bringing my husband this Christmas!)

Every wanna-be inventor will love Make Magazine (and associated sites). There is a kids' section, too.

You may also want to check out Gever Tulley (of 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your child do)) and his Tinkering School blog for inspiration.

There is a wonderful HBO series on Inventors by Devine Entertainment that you probably can find at your local library. If you want to buy the series or individual videos, you can get also find them at Fire the Imagination.

And for excellent inspiration, don't forget the Ultimate Makers Health Robinson and Rube Goldberg.

A couple of our favourite cartoon characters, Phineas and Ferb, are masters of invention (and adventure). Although it dwells in the realm of the absurd and fantastic, this show is crazy motivating when it comes to doing and making.

Phineas's stock line "I know what we're going to do today!" is an optimistic call to all of us to get off the couch, pull out that box of odds and ends under the stairs, crack open the tool box, and see what happens. 'Cause just about anything is possible.


Please feel free to add your favourite "inventive" resources in the comments!