Are Inventors a Dying Breed?

I recently had the distinct pleasure of meeting and talking with John Ratzenberger, the actor from Cheers, the voice of the pig in Toy Story, and also a sailor, an inveterate inventor, and a singer of old, sad sailor songs as my friend Mary described him to me. He is the inventor of the Ecopack and the packaging machinery to produce it, and many other inventions, as well.

Ratzenberger It turns out that John is an advocate of returning vocational training to high schools. People who can make things with their hands, fix and repair, invent something on a workbench rather than on a computer monitor, are a dying breed. Their average age is 56. His mission, and I agree, is that we need a new generation of inventors, builders, experimenters, and tinkerers, which perhaps You Tube is just now beginning to inspire.               

Ten years ago, when we contacted Chicago’s great vocational high schools looking for possible part-time student help for our toy shop, we were out of luck. All the great trade schools in Chicago, like Lane Tech (an enormous school with a student body greater than the population of town I grew up in), were now college prep schools. There seemed to be no vocational high school education in all of the great City of Chicago. Impossible!   

Today, it is companies like Lund and Company and others in the toy industry that train young inventors in the hand-on skills needed to be successful in the world. 

I am proud to have trained many who have since gone on to work in the industry far and near.            

Hand-tools_jpg_460x460_q85 Many things must be first made by hand, experimentally, by tinkering and trying, testing, experimenting interactively – the Edisonian process. It requires hand skills, knowledge, and skills using tools and equipment. There is no other way for some things to come into being. It is like scientific research. It is not done in solid works – that is for design and engineering.

Invention is a hands-on sport using milling machines, lathes, saws, drills, vacuformers, mold-making and casting, soldering and welding, as well as more modern tools like 3D printers (I sure would like one of those for Christmas, Santa, Bill Gates, or whoever is listening) and CNC machines. Industrial-Age tools have no replacement today.               

So I say, "Go John Ratzenberger, Go!" I agree, I will back you, and maybe I can help in some way. We need those who can build, invent, repair, tinker, create on the workbench surface those things that cannot, and will not, come into being any other way. 

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Bruce,
    I wonder if some of the trouble is how we rate our kids these days by all the testing they/schools must achieve to get or keep needed funding?
    I was never one that did well on tests – and my 9-yr old son isn’t either. However, give either one of us a pile a parts and a room full of tools and we can build just about anything.
    I think we need more dissemination of programs like ‘Odyssey of the Mind’ in our schools. Oklahoma is experimenting with new ways of educating our young like the A+Schools ( – there is a wonderful OKL PBS video called ‘Reinventing America’ that is well worth a watch – – sound solutions.
    We are on our way, but we need to start young in my opinion… make creating, inventing, team-work, collaboration and part of a normal school day. I also think that we need to find ways to better mesh the kids that aren’t ‘book-smart’ into the fabric. Schools need to test for more that just math and language – and take a a hard look at more inventive ways of teaching.
    Easy for me to rant, but we are involved in an Odyssey program for our kids and it has been amazing. I hope your readers have time to watch the ‘Reinventing America’ video – I hope OKL is successful as it looks like a great model for other states to follow.
    Justin Discoe
    Sprig Toys

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