The Tinkerers | Alec Foege

Summary of: The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great
By: Alec Foege


Welcome to an engaging journey through the world of inventiveness that lies at the heart of America’s development, as explored in Alec Foege’s book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. This book summary sheds light on the role innovation played in shaping the world’s largest economy, from the Founding Fathers to current-day trailblazers like Bill Gates and Dean Kamen. As you navigate through this summary, you’ll gain insights into the shifting landscape of tinkering in America, where the focus on short-term thinking and risk aversion affects the creative spirit. Learn about the challenges and opportunities present today and explore the essence of the true American tinkering spirit.

Tinkering towards Innovation

The United States has a long history of innovation and creativity starting from the Founding Fathers to the modern-day innovators such as Bill Gates and Dean Kamen. However, corporations and governments have stopped funding pure experimentation and popular gizmos are so complicated that few people tinker with them. American education’s fixation on standardized test scores and busy parents have made it difficult for kids to have unstructured play. Due to these factors, America has fallen behind other countries in filing new patents and public investment for research and development. To regain its place at the forefront of innovation, Americans need to rediscover their natural inclination to question whether something is as good as it should be or could be.

Thomas Edison: America’s Prodigous Tinkerer

Thomas Edison’s endless curiosity and drive for discovery lead him to become one of America’s foremost inventors. While he desired wealth and fame, his innovations mostly made others rich. Edison’s approach to experimentation was freestyle, allowing him to switch from one project to another. He preferred collaboration with teams of mechanics, craftsmen, and inventors, and demanded complete autonomy in his work. However, after World War II, a rigid and sterile systems-analysis approach dominated American invention, stifling innovation. The RAND Corporation’s data-driven planning contributed to the nuclear arms race, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. Edison believed in human instinct and creativity, but RAND suppressed both. Despite this setback, Edison’s impact on innovation persists, as his path was followed by many others for at least the subsequent half-century.

The Power of Tinkering

The concept of institutionalized innovation has been alive since the golden age of corporate laboratories, where well-funded corporate teams worked on pure experimentation and discovery. However, such labs are virtually nonexistent today, and organizations instead fund specific product-focused development. Nevertheless, a new concept of “invention capital” has emerged to support inventors with patentable ideas and assemble productive groups of innovators. Intellectual Ventures (IV) is a prime example of this invention capital idea put into practice. IV has raised more than $5 billion to help inventors develop and patent ideas, and license or lease the patents to organizations that want to develop them commercially. The key to IV’s success is the process of “invention sessions” that generate new ideas from unstructured debates. This process has led to the development of more than 2,000 patent applications, including efforts to end fossil-fuel dependence and fight malaria. In conclusion, true tinkering is an iterative process that involves risk and unusual behavior, and it rarely thrives in an institutional setting. However, IV may have found a new model to replace government and corporate investment in pure experimentation.

America’s Innovation Crisis

Dean Kamen, a renowned tinkerer, believes that America has lost its innovative edge due to its focus on financial engineering, causing people to lose interest in technological tinkering. As the economy shifts from manufacturing to information and services, Wall Street has hired many of the “best and brightest,” leading to the creation of derivatives and credit default swaps that nearly wrecked the global economy in 2008. Kamen argues that Americans are uniquely suited to pursue invention and to foster it, but the nation needs to incentivize and nurture it. Although the financial crisis devastated many people, it also led some to return to working with their hands and generating positive ideas to support innovative pursuits.

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