America has always been the land of tinkerers, from Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford to Steve Jobs and the guy who created the Flowbee. But todayâ€™s basement inventors have it easy in ways their predecessors couldnâ€™t have imagined. In the past, someone with a new idea would have had to actually build the thing themselves, find a market for it and figure out how to get it mass-produced. Now inexpensive technology means that anybody can quickly transform an idea into a physical product. Google SketchUp makes it easy for even the sloppiest untrained draftsperson to mock up a 3-D digital model. Any inventor can contact a Chinese factory, many of which are so hungry for American business that they will create a prototype for next to nothing. Sites like Etsy.com make it easier to reach a market, and others, like Quirky.com, allow users to simply suggest an idea and share the royalties if it makes it to the market.
This environment approaches the ideal economy that Adam Smith wrote about â€” one in which size and power donâ€™t always beat good ideas in the market. Comprehensive data are difficult to come by, but the largest inventorâ€™s organization, the United Inventors Association, says their membership has tripled to 12,000 in the last 18 months. This spike is undoubtedly due in part to the economic slowdown and high unemployment, but the new tools seem likely to inspire a permanent increase in amateur inventing when the economy starts growing more aggressively (whenever that is).
This is good news for noninventors too. Many of the things that make life better started off in the brain of some lonely experimenter: the steam engine, airplanes, antibiotics, maybe even self-supporting lollipop holders.