Makers, Inventors, Designers and Engineers

In the panel session at yesterday’s Maker Assembly Sheffield there was a really interesting question from John Moseley. To paraphrase: “what happened to inventors?”

Growing up in the 70s, an inventor was really something to be. New inventions were broadcast to us weekly by Tomorrow’s World, while actual inventors battled it out on light-entertainment-science-challenge TV programme The Great Egg Race, egged on by archetypal mad scientist Heinz Wolff, who was the living embodiment of the greatest literary hero of my childhood, Professor Branestawm.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. If anyone asked me “what do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer was simple: “an inventor”. Professor Branestawm was my role model. One day I hoped to live in a beautiful chaos of spare bits, fashioning machines that browned and buttered my toast, according to need and whim.

One day, a parent or teacher pointed out to me that “inventor” is not something one can choose to be. “Inventor” is not a job title anyone has. You can earn it, maybe, by inventing something, but you can’t go to the job centre and ask to see the vacancies for inventors. Perhaps, once I learned that, I stopped knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up.

In the 21st century, you never hear the word “inventor”. “Maker” you hear a lot (unlike in the 70s). But “inventor”? No.

What’s the difference, and where have all the inventors gone?

The panel started talking, and something really struck me: none of them used the i-word. The discussion became one about the difference between “makers” and “designers”. The verb “to invent” had been (unconsciously?) subsumed by the verb “to design”.

All of the panel appeared to be in their 30s. Perhaps the term “invent” died out straight after my 1970s childhood. Perhaps, for them, inventing was never a thing?

I tweeted, and received this reply:

So what has happened? Has the term “invent” gone for good?

Perhaps, divorced of the need to design and engineer, there was nothing left for “invention” to represent. Pure invention is abstract, meaningless; the adult who said “there’s no such thing as an inventor” was right. Perhaps.

Whatever; I miss inventors.