child development

The Power of Imagination: Problem Solving

farnsworthOver the last few years I’ve talked a lot about the importance of nurturing imagination in kids. After all, the name of this company—Cardboard Box Adventures—is inspired by those big, empty cardboard boxes that are always favorite toys with kids. For them, boxes can be whatever they want to imagine—a rocket ship, a submarine, a fort, a tent, a cave—anything.

My tenth (just released) Cardboard Box Adventures picture book, Space Cop Zack, Protector of the Galaxy, is a celebration of the power of imagination—and that’s why I’m thinking even more about imagination this week. I’ll talk more about Zack in next week’s blog, because today I would like to write about why imagination can be such a powerful aid in helping us solve problems.

While I was thinking about a few possible examples of imaginative problem solvers, I remembered something I once read about Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a mathematician and inventor. He is also considered by many to be the father of television. (The photo above is of his statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection. He invented many, many other things during his lifetime.)

By 1918, technology had advanced to the point where speech and music could be transmitted across distances (by telephone or radio), but at that point in time no one had figured out how to send pictures. This was something that held great interest for Philo Farnsworth, then a twelve-year-old boy living and working on his uncle’s farm with the rest of his family.

How did a twelve-year-old become so interested in the idea of transmitting images electronically?

Moving to his uncle’s farm in Idaho was a pivotal point in Farnsworth’s life. The farm was powered by an electric generator, which fascinated him. He soon became so familiar with it that he was able to repair it whenever necessary. He also was able to adapt a small burned-out electric motor that he found one day in order to convert his mother’s hand-powered washing machine into an electric-powered machine.

Farnsworth’s outstanding aptitude for electronics and mechanics was soon fueled by some science and technology magazines he discovered in the attic of his uncle’s house. He read these magazines avidly. One of the topics they frequently discussed was the possibility of sending images across distances to a visual receiver at the other end…better known as television. But these articles were only theoretical discussions, because no one had quite figured out how to make that idea work.

This possibility greatly intrigued young Farnsworth. He thought about it often during the year before he turned thirteen.

Then one day, while he was plowing a field, the answer came to him. Looking back over the freshly-plowed furrows that divided the field into even stripes, he realized that an image could be sliced into many narrow rows, transmitted one row at a time, and then reassembled into the original image by the receiver.

Over the next several years, Farnsworth went on to develop this idea and by 1927 he sent his very first image (a straight line) from a transmitter in one room to a receiver in another room.

Without using his imagination, Farnsworth would have never looked at something perfectly ordinary—like a plowed field—and related it to a complex electronic theory that confounded many of the leading scientific thinkers of his time.

Not all kids will grow up to be inventors. And not all kids have outstanding electronic abilities like Farnsworth had even as a child. But all kids have imaginations. So encourage your children to use their imaginations! You will be assisting them to develop and retain a valuable quality that will help them solve problems long after they’re grown. Please leave a comment and share how you encourage your kids to use their imaginations!

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