Thus Humboldt – who had earned his fame in the tropics – turned to the bleak North. In his early 50s, Wilhelm Ostwald resigned his chair of physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig to pursue philosophy, color theory, and the promotion of scientific knowledge. He is honored not only for the chemical discoveries that led to his Nobel Prize in 1909 but for his work on an early version of the hypertext concept.For engineering and invention, the implications of an aging brain trust are quite apparent. There, too, young people are responsible for many basic innovations. But that doesn’t mean they will stagnate as they age. Thomas Edison was in his late 60s when he developed the disc phonograph. Shumpei Yamazaki of Japan, the inventor of flash memory, has at 62 just displaced Edison in the Guinness book of records, after pointing out that his 3,245 patents exceeded Edison’s 2,332. Othmar Ammann designed New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in his late 70s; the Swiss engineer Christian Menn completed the revolutionary cable-stayed Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston at 75.
What is the secret of such men and women? Partly, it is that they do not expect the flashes of mathematical insight that may indeed be the prerogative of the plastic youthful brain, but instead forge new syntheses aided by experience.
For some, this drawing on experience can become an ever renewing source of inspiration. Germany’s most prolific patenter, Artur Fischer, made a breakthrough as a young man in 1948 with Germany’s, and perhaps the world’s, first electrical system for triggering a photographic flashgun automatically when the shutter is released. He then applied his research on plastic parts in projection screens to the development of a bestselling nylon wall anchor for the building trades, millions of which are still made daily by the firm he founded. The principle of this plastic-sheathed bolt in turn became a key element in his line of model-building kits, Fischertechnik, which is used by industrial prototypers as well as schoolchildren. At 85 he has developed a system for making biodegradable toys from potato starch.
As Fischer has aged, the markets for his ideas have grown younger. To attract more kids to invention, it might help to show them that talent has no expiration date.