“Where do sidewalks come from?” My niece is six years old and so profound. In my mind she is, anyway. After asking this question, we walked on in contemplative silence. Where did sidewalks come from? Where does anything we use on a daily basis come from? “Where do you think they come from?” I countered her question while pulling out my smartphone to investigate. Needless to say, her idea of their origin was much grander than what I found. A simple conversation with a six-year-old philosopher slapped me with a powerful paradigm shift. I found myself paying attention to light poles, stop lights, fire hydrants, coffee shops, computers, cell phones . . . the list goes on! It was incredible to realize just how easily I disregarded these and many other inventions as commonplace items; they had always existed in my mind. I never stop to think about how different life might have been without them. How different life was without them. I remembered spending my high school years wishing I had a portable phone that I could carry around with me everywhere. Now I carry it begrudgingly, resisting the urge to disconnect and toss it into a gutter each time it buzzes. How things change. The beauty of our human condition is that we acclimate to our current environments. This feature of evolution allows us to push forward into new and uncharted territory, every single day.
So where do inventions come from? Ultimately what are they? How do people come up with them? I felt as though I had stepped into the shoes of a child, explaining away the creation of incredible technology with modern day wizards, geniuses, and master trade smiths. I imagined labs and bubbling test tubes. Once more I found myself turning to technology to answer my questions. My mind was once again blown away by facts that quickly explained away the magic my imagination had conjured. The wizards behind the curtain were people—most were just individuals or companies who had seen a problem and instead of wishing there was a better way or a shortcut, simply searched for a solution: rolling benches, twisted forks, universal wrapping paper. All of these were upgraded versions of preexisting inventions.
Other Inventors stumbled into their creations while working on completely unrelated subject matters. For instance, a British pharmacist inadvertently discovered the concept of matches back in the early 1800’s while scraping chemical build up from his stirring stick, accidentally sparking it on fire. Though he had no interest in patenting the idea, others stepped up to the challenge, evolving them into the smaller, safer, and more efficient matches we use today. Sticky notes were created by an engineer trying to fabricate an adhesive strong enough for aerospace application. The best part? The invention had been written off by the company he was contracted by! They didn’t see it’s purpose, so it was shelved for over five years before another engineer working for the same company, who had heard of his invention used the Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres to keep his choir sheets from falling away while in use. Working together with a team, the engineers discovered that instead of applying smaller pieces to a larger surface that had been sprayed with the adhesive, they were better served adding it to smaller pieces of paper, making them portable, reusable, and fun to look at was the best thing they could have done for the world of office space.
Antifreeze, the microwave oven, and so many more inventions were happy accidents created and distributed by individuals who saw the discovery as a way for society to profit (along with themselves). The point is, not everything comes with a stroke of genius. Sometimes simply being aware of the world around us can lead to the creation of the next “big thing.” You want to read the newspaper but don’t want to carry it around? There is an app for that. You want to find a scenic area to run? Look no further; the answer is a point and click away. After seeing the world in this light, its magic was rekindled. Whenever I catch myself lost in thought, or thoughtlessly wandering to my destination, I remember the sidewalks. I choose to look around me and take in what others have created. Anytime I begin to lose faith in humanity, I am able to regain confidence through the examining the things they’ve created. People are awesome. I challenge any brave soul willing to tap into their inner child to take a look around the next time you are out and about. By doing this, you allow yourself the ability to question the way things work, and to open a can of creativity that may lead you to create the next “big” invention.