Read an excerpt from the scientist and inventor's new book for kids
Temple Grandin, renowned scientist and inventor, has had the career of many kids’ dreams: She works with animals and has created brilliant inventions like her famous “Hug Machine” — all while becoming a spokesperson for those living with autism.
In her forthcoming book Calling All Minds (out May 15, 2018), Grandin shows young readers and budding scientists how to think like her, sharing more than 20 of the projects she worked on herself as a child. With these, she provides small histories of each invention and mini-biographies of each inventor, while espousing the importance of working with your hands and mind in a world that skews increasingly toward the virtual.
Above, EW can exclusively reveal the cover for Calling All Minds, and below, get a first look at Grandin’s introduction.
Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor by Temple Grandin
My road to becoming an inventor and animal scientist began when I was young. I attended my classes, but I was more interested in the horses than anything else. I was lucky because both my mother and the school’s headmaster encouraged me to learn everything I could about animals and science, and my teachers allowed it as long as I was on time for classes and meals and took care of the horses. In addition to riding, that meant grooming, feeding, and mucking out the stalls. Summers at my aunt’s ranch were also extremely important; I spent all my time with the cattle and horses learning everything I could about their behavior and how to communicate with them. Another influence was John C. Purves, my maternal grandfather. He was an inventor and one of the great role models in my life. When I was a child, I asked him endless questions about the world around, such as Why do the tides on the seashore go in and out?
Another reason I became a scientist, which I didn’t figure out until I was older, is that I’m a visual thinker. I organize the world through pictures, and my mind references words through series of visual images. If someone says “dog,” my mind calls up each dog I have ever seen. As I got older, I could picture how things worked in vivid visual detail and in three dimensions. It was like running a film in my head. Eventually, I could actually test run equipment in my imagination. I could see things that clearly. It’s considered “normal” to use a combination of visual and verbal skills to express thoughts and ideas, but in my experience there is no “normal.”
When I was diagnosed with autism (as a child in the 1950s), most people didn’t really know what it was or the different ways it affected people. Now, we say that a person is “on the autistic spectrum,” which can mean many things. They may have normal speech, or they may never learn to speak at all. I was a late talker, I hated being hugged or held, and I was often in my own world. I had so much difficulty sitting still that Mother used to say to me, “Go outside and run the energy out of you!” I also couldn’t stand sudden sounds or any clothes that were too scratchy, and I would become very agitated when my world was changed in any little way. Others rock back and forth all the time or need to spin themselves around and can’t pay attention. Many can be socially awkward and unable to make eye contact, yet can have successful careers in tech companies, industrial design, the arts, or a job that requires attention to detail. Some develop special skills at a very advanced level, often in the areas of mathematics, art, computers, or music. Some great scientists and inventors were probably on the autism spectrum.
Autism is not “one size fits all.” The more we learn about “the spectrum” (the range of abilities and deficits an autistic person may have), the more we will understand different kinds of minds and how important different kinds of thinkers are—especially where creativity, innovation, and invention are concerned. I like to think of myself and other people who are different kinds of thinkers on a human spectrum. Though our brains may work in different ways, there is no limit to the kinds of contributions we can make.
I got teased a lot in school because my social skills weren’t all that great. I knew I didn’t fit in, but I didn’t know why. The kids called me “tape recorder” because I repeated things over and over in a kind of monotone voice. I cared more about working on science projects and making fancy horse bridles than about the high school dance. Kids still get teased today for differences. Today, I would probably be called a nerd or a geek. Though it’s also true that nerds and geeks tend to win Nobel Prizes and run Silicon Valley.
Teachers and parents worry about the quirky kid who draws all day or the one who cares only about insects. They want kids to be well-rounded, but those single-minded kids may grow up to create and do incredible things if we encourage them to pursue interests. At least that’s what happened with me. My love of horses and cattle as a teen became the basis of my career as an animal scientist. No question. However, the main reason I also became an inventor is simple: Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved making things and working with my hands. If one of my projects failed, I would experiment for many hours until I got it to work.
When I was young, my mother let me use every kind of material from around the house to create my experiments, from her old clothes and scarves to the cardboard inside my father’s shirts when they came back from the cleaners. That cardboard was treasure! I could make a million things with it: building blocks that became forts, dioramas, models, and jumping jacks. I loved taking things apart and putting them back together, or making new inventions out of the pieces. You’ll find lots of these projects in this book, but I also encourage you to experiment and design your own. Remember: instructions are only guidelines. Sometimes my students will come to me very upset because they followed the directions to an experiment perfectly, but it didn’t produce the desired result. I tell them the same thing: you have to experiment with the experiment!
If I had to boil this book down, my message would be this: Make Things.
I’m sure you’ve been told by your parents many times to stop playing video games or to get off your iPad or smartphone. They probably say that you are destroying brain cells or that you should be socializing or studying or practicing violin. All of that may be true, but I want you to put down your phone so that one day you might invent a better phone or video game, or a safer car or a piece of equipment that will save lives. For all the amazing things technology can do, if you want to create, you need to take things apart and put them back together with your own hands. Mathematician Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, the inventor of COBOL, the first non-numerical computer code (the one that most humans could understand), famously took apart every alarm clock in her parents’ house (seven clocks!) when she was a child. That’s usually a sign that a kid is headed for the laboratory; that is, if he or she is encouraged instead of punished for destroying the family clocks.
My father’s toolbox was more interesting to me than my mother’s jewelry box. They both had little compartments, which I liked to root around in, but the toolbox had all sorts of things I could play with, like adjustable wrenches, drills, and a folding yardstick. The yardstick was made of wood and had many hinges so that when it was closed, it looked like gate. Partly opened, it looked like a fan, and fully opened, it became a sword to play with. A neighbor had a retractable measuring tape that could be pulled out to twenty-five feet and had a mechanism to lock it at any length. But the part I loved was when you released the catch. The measuring tape went flying back into its body, swallowing itself superfast like the retractable cords on some vacuum cleaners and dog leashes. I’ve always loved any gadget where rapid movement is involved, so I unscrewed the case and discovered that the measuring tape was connected to a flat metal spring that is wound around a post. That’s how all retractable items work.
You need to understand how a car works before you can invent a better one, which means you need to understand how pistons and engines and brake systems work by holding and feeling them. I’m not suggesting you take apart the family car, but if you love cars, you’ll learn more by working as a part-time assistant at a local body shop than by playing Carmageddon for hours in your family den. You may have to do a lot of sweeping up and menial jobs at first, but eventually you’ll get to see under the car and under the hood where the real action is. There is no substitute for real world experience and working with your hands. And there is no greater pride than to see something you have created give pleasure or help people.
When the first man landed on the moon, he planted an American flag on its surface to symbolically say “We got here first.” When inventors create something, they go to the patent office with their new creation to declare the same thing: “This is a first! This is original!” Patents protect inventors’ work by preventing others from stealing both their ideas and often many years of work. The patents themselves tell a remarkable story of human ingenuity and serve a greater public good by preserving knowledge. If you think of a museum as a repository of art, the United States Patent and Trademark Office can be thought of as repository of knowledge. I still love looking up patents to this day. In this book, we’ll trace some of the most groundbreaking inventions from Colonial America to the Industrial Age to our present Technological Age. We’ll meet the first patent holder, as well as the youngest, the first woman, and the first African American to hold patents. Women and people of color were not originally allowed to hold patents, which is why many of their contributions have been lost to history; their stories are all the more remarkable.
When I was in elementary school, I had a book of inventors that I loved. It’s long gone, but I can remember how I read it over and over again until the pages got thin, fascinated by the inventors and the incredible things they made. I remember the entry for Thomas Alva Edison, who held 1,093 patents in the U.S. alone. I was inspired by his saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I was also surprised to learn that some inventions happen by accident. Early on, I realized three very important things from my book of inventors: (1) There is usually a fascinating story of how things get made by connecting the dots. (2) Inventing takes hard work and requires patience. (3) Sometimes the most important discoveries are the result of serendipity.
The future holds many crucial challenges such as understanding the impact of climate change, curing diseases, and ending hunger. We need all kinds of minds if we are going to figure out how to adapt. If we lose the ability to make things, we will lose a whole lot more. We need people who can cast iron and chemists who can create new materials that are lighter and stronger than metal. We need new storytellers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists. And we need new technologies to explore the future, including a deeper and more complex understanding of the earth and the ocean and the galaxies.
There is no better way to start than by making things of your own design. All the projects I made when I was young contributed to the inventions I’ve made throughout my life. And they have given my life meaning. I hope these projects and the ones you create will do the same for you.