The first in a series about youth.
When you’re a kid, there are no limits on the world—everything seems possible. When he was seven, my brother truly believed that one day he’d wake up to see a T-Rex peering at him through his bedroom. (Yes, he had just watched Jurassic Park.) He also talked about inventing a plane that could withstand the strength of a tornado enough to fly within its wind currents, for a real bird’s-eye view of the storm. To find out other would-be inventions and asked an assorted group of tech- and science-minded folks, “When you were young, what did you want to invent, discover or accomplish in the future?” Here’s what they said.
Sam Biddle, senior staff writer at Gizmodo
I never wanted to invent anything when I was little. Probably because my parents were writers, and that’s a silly and impossible thing to try to comprehend when you’re tiny. Like most little boys in a vaguely militarized society, I wanted to be an astronaut and be in rockets and discover planets, until my parents told me you had to be in the Air Force before you could be an astronaut. Is that even true? I never really followed up, since I was, like, five. My parents didn’t push me in any direction as I grew up, but didn’t want their tiny little guy having missiles fired at him, so it was vaguely discouraged. That was the end of the astronaut phase. Then I dreamt of being an undersea explorer, idolizing Robert Ballard and Jacques Cousteau, only to gather from my parents that pretty much everything underwater had been discovered already, especially the Titanic, which had the fuck discovered out of it already. After going to the British Museum when I was eight years old, being an Egyptologist seemed pretty neat, and it impressed dinner party guests when I said “Egyptologist,” but then my parents told me that all the stuff had been found in all the Pyramids and tombs, and that it probably wouldn’t be something anyone could do by the time I grew up. I think this is probably true, so thanks, Mom and Dad. By then I was starting to get really excited by books and reading, so I just figured I could somehow make money doing what my parents did, and gave up studying math and science and diverted all of my mental energy into Star Wars novels and writing dumb short stories about robots and museum heists and robot museums. But my parents are proud of me now as a non-child, so I’m mostly pleased too.
Rebecca Boyle, Popular Science contributor
When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut—Sally Ride, who passed away recently, was my personal heroine. In 1986, my haircut was pretty much exactly like hers. Thanks to her, it never occurred to me that it would be groundbreaking or uncommon for a woman to fly a space shuttle or study physics—it seemed eminently reasonable. I had an inflatable shuttle in my bedroom and I covered the walls with glow-in-the-dark stars arranged like constellations. I dreamed of going into space and discovering a comet, just like Halley’s Comet. I even tried to read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and kept a dictionary next to me so I could look up the biggest words.
When I was in sixth grade, my parents indulged this ambition by sending me to Space Camp, which was awesome despite the fact that I was mercilessly teased for my astronaut flight suit. Then I grew up to be a writer instead. Two weeks ago, I was at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Curiosity landing, and it felt like coming full circle—I might not fly into space, but I can do it virtually. Although, you never know. If there’s ever a volunteer mission for humans to Mars, maybe I’ll sign up and blog about it.
Matt Buchanan, editor of Buzzfeed’s FWD blog
I like sleeping. I hate missing things. What that’s meant, forever, is that I often stay up until 4am or until dawn, and then I wind up sleeping to four in the afternoon. Less than ideal. I’ve gotten better about this since I’ve gotten older—’’cause like, work—but it’s still one of the core dynamics in my life. So when I was younger I wanted to invent a method or device or like discover alien technology so that whenever I went to sleep, the whole world stopped cold. Paused. I even imagined a cool special effects sequence that would show what it was like—because I figure in those moments between being fully awake and fully asleep, or have a waking dream, that whole world would be tripping balls. Things would be slowing down and speeding up. No one would know but me, of course. But it’d mean I could sleep as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, and I’d never miss a thing. What a luxury.
Clay Dillow, contributing writer at Popular Science
When I was a kid, my dad picked up this two-seater go-cart at a second-hand sale. My brother, sister, and I loved that thing, and we spent innumerable hours tearing around the place, as well as fixing flat tires and learning how to replace the perennially blown clutch. It was at some point during these years that I became fascinated with the idea of powered parachutes, or PPCs—those three-wheeled, dune-buggy-looking vehicles that fly suspended beneath a huge parachute. I remember desperately wanting to figure a way to hack that go-cart—with all five of its horsepower at my command—into a powered parachute of some kind. In essence, I wanted to invent my own personal flying machine. So in some respects, maybe I wanted to invent the flying car. But really I just wanted to shake myself loose from a two-axis, terrestrial existence and go skyward—an impulse that I feel is perfectly natural.
I also wanted to invent teleportation. Still do.
Cory Doctorow, writer and BoingBoing editor
Total, multilateral, global nuclear disarmament.
Kelly Faircloth, tech writer at Betabeat and The Observer
Ever since an all-too-early exposure to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I’ve been obsessed with faster-than-light travel. But it turns out I’m completely, utterly horrible at math, and therefore I realized pretty early on I would not be inventing FTL technology. So my abiding secret desire as a child was to discover some Stargate-style ancient alien relic with spacefaring technology that humanity could just rip off. Voilà! A shortcut to the stars.
Sadly, there were no extraterrestrial wrecks to be stumbled upon in Middle Georgia. (I checked.)
Ann Finkbeiner, writer and The Last Word on Nothing proprietor
If “young” is between 10 and 15: I lived on a small farm that didn’t distinguish between men’s work and women’s work, you just did what needed to be done. So though I was obsessed with books, feeding chickens or cleaning bathrooms or hoeing beans usually needed to be done—the upshot being that I read those books behind chairs where I wouldn’t be noticed. All this created in me a powerful laser-like yearning to get the hell out of Dodge and write books myself, books that would take the reader into rich and meaningful worlds that would make beautiful and orderly sense. I didn’t do that though.
John Green, writer
I wanted to be an earthworm scientist. I basically wanted to be this guy. That guy has my dream job. Later, by high school, I wanted to be a novelist, but I think I mostly just wanted to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I remember when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that seemed really fun and exciting.
Rebecca Greenfield, staff writer at The Atlantic Wire
As a child, I was concerned with the mundane: traffic and weather. Being late made me anxious, so when stuck in traffic jams, I dreamt up a genius invention called the flying car that, when stopped behind a long line of motionless cars, could fly above and beyond the traffic. (Different than an airplane! Because it could also drive on the road. And, was in the shape of my family’s minivan.) I understood that there were inherent complications with my invention. If everyone had flying cars, then there would be flying car traffic jams. (Point defeated.) And, in-flight accidents would probably be nastier than on the ground ones. But, I was more concerned with the end goal: A world without traffic, something that would make a lot of people—but especially me—happier and more on-time.
I also loved arguing about the weather, a skill that would lead to my eventual election as the first female president of the United States of America. Weather-related arguments involved convincing someone they were either wrong about the forecast or about the current ambient conditions. These arguments were easy to win because nobody wants to get into a deep conversation about what it’s like outside, unless they are a grandparent and grandparents always let their grandchildren win. These sparring talents meant I was destined to be a great lawyer, and, as we know, great lawyers get elected presidents of countries. I am not sure younger me knew what future me’s presidential platform would involve, but it probably had something to do with global warming—rising gas prices were another worry of mine. And, waste—I hated waste. Perhaps I should have gone the law school route because the climate is scarier than it was back then and the planet could probably use some of President Greenfield’s green policy proposals. (E.g. “Mom, why didn’t you take the reusable bags to Wegmans!”)
Fred Guterl, Scientific American executive editor
In nursery school I remember this one kid whom the “big kindergarten kids” made fun of. I recall they objected to his shoes for some reason. He and I started hanging out on the swings and the jungle gym together. I don’t remember when we started to get interested in space, but when we were a little older we became obsessed. It was the early 1960s, during the moon race, and NASA was launching Mercury and Gemini capsules, in the long slow crescendo to Apollos, which seemed hopelessly distant and futuristic. All my friend and I wanted to do and think about was try and get into orbit somehow. We would spend hours in the garage, building spaceships out of anything we could find lying around. We built one out of plywood and two-by-fours that was triangular, with a “control panel” of old screws and knobs, and we’d spend hours fiddling with them and practicing for the day we just knew would arrive when the ship would carry us aloft. A while later we use pointy wood screws to attach the two garbage to one another, and attached them in turn to the top of an old discarded boiler casing we had found in the woods. I climbed a ladder and crawled into the “capsule” on top. My friend lit the boiler. It didn’t take off. I remember yelling, “It’s getting hot!” Mission aborted. My friend kicked the whole apparatus over. I still have a scar from the landing—one of those sharp screws was sticking out. Eventually, my friend and I drifted apart, the space program went into remission, we got interested in adolescent things. It took many years for me to return to that early inspiration. Now I’m a science writer.
Eric Hand, reporter for Nature
I wanted to build a massive, livable, year-round treehouse.
Reyhan Harmanci, West Coast editor of Buzzfeed’s FWD blog
My mother quit her job when she had kids, and she was always very ambivalent about that choice. It made a big impression on me: When I was little, I didn’t have any particular calling but really craved some kind of professional success. I can remember learning about obituaries and my parents telling me that the highest honor was to have an obituary in The New York Times and then plowing through old Times newspapers, trying to figure out what kind of person was most likely to get this award. I came up with “businessman” which was handy, because at the time, my fourth-grade side hustle involved making and selling (non-ironically) friendship bracelets for $.50 each. But even as I cycled through numerous career paths (in my head)—artist, lawyer, fashion designer, novelist, horseback rider, potter, hair stylist, Supreme Court judge, presidential speech writer—that dream of being featured in a New York Times obituary persisted. It only occurred to me later that even if I did get that highest of honors, how would I know?
Thomas Hayden, science journalism lecturer at Stanford
When I was a preschooler, I just wanted to be a cowboy or a firefighter. I managed to do a little bit of both of those along the way, but by the time I was about 14, what I wanted to invent more than anything were machines powered by the heat of a well-turned compost heap. I experimented for years, trying to maximize heat production and energy capture, and eventually managed to power a small steam engine with compost heat, using petroleum ether rather than water. I subsequently studied microbial ecology in university to push my efforts further but then, tragically, became distracted by writing and threw my life away on science journalism. Imagine if Tesla had been similarly seduced by the high glamor of the written word? Devastating!
John Herrman, deputy tech editor at Buzzfeed
I had a pretty short dream-span as a kid. I also had the unfortunate, but I think common habit of interpreting small approvals as, like, cosmic endorsements—a good grade or a nice comment or just any little success was a sign that I could eventually master some new thing, no problem. (Q: What makes a millennial a Millennial? A: A conflation of ability and actual accomplishment combined with a gross overestimation of ability.) There was an author phase (I was going to write the next Hardy Boys), a scientist (paleontologist) phase, a doctor phase. Lots of short phases, followed by a healthy and complete teenage collapse of confidence.
Last time I was asked this question was when my middle-school class was assembling a 20-year time capsule. My note to myself had a dollar attached, to go toward a beer with my two best friends at the time, and a pencil-scrawled insult: “Are you seriously not married yet?”
Sarah Kessler, associate editor at Fast Company
When I was seven, my parents told me that I could have a pony… if I bought it myself.
At the time, I didn’t realize this actually meant no, so I enlisted my neighborhood accomplice, and we set to work dividing our allowance into mason jars labeled “horse,” “horse food” and “barn.”
It turned out that financing a horse cost more than our combined $15 of life savings. And as a pair of seven-year-olds, our employment opportunities were limited. Thus we were forced into entrepreneurship. We made friendship bracelets to hawk at the local beach, set up a lemonade stand on our rarely trafficked rural road and attempted to sell our younger brothers into manual labor.
I’d like to say this scheme was the first sign of budding business prowess. After all, we did make, like, 20 bucks. But I think it was much more indicative of how much I wanted a freaking pony.
Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor of BoingBoing
I was about 5 or 6 when I first came up with an answer for the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My early career goal: Become a ballet-dancing archaeologist who was also President of the United States. Apparently, I expected to be much better at time management than I actually am.
Matt Langer, Awl contributor and New York Times developer
I always wanted the future to look the way it did in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling novels. Like it did in Blade Runner, more or less: dystopic but strangely enough still kind of alluring, this hypertechnologized world where it just rains all the time and the sun never comes out because the atmosphere’s been pumped so full of gases (ha, which shows how neurotic we are, really, considering that back in the ’80s our collective awareness of these things was pretty much limited to a fuzzy understanding of the term “chlorofluorocarbons” and a gnawing worry about using too much hair spray). But the (ugh, for lack of a better word obviously) cyberpunk world those guys portrayed not only seemed totally plausible (if not even a little bit inevitable) but it also gave something of a silver lining to the notion of a dystopia, at least inasmuch as sure, yes, we couldn’t see the sun, but look at us we were still conquering this miserable world with our TECHNOLOGY! And so in any event this was all very appealing to young nerdy me, the thought that I could grow up to live in a city illuminated only by neon lighting and blinkering LEDs, where people ducked into noodle bars to get out of the rain and ate alone while chefs bantered away behind the counter in foreign languages. There was even an old video game that did this world very well, a game called Privateer (part of the Wing Commander franchise for those who remember the days when video games used to come on forty-odd 3.5″ floppies), and one of the missions in that game took you to a city that perfectly captured this future: lots of rain and dark alleyways, severe concrete architecture, light sources that always flickered, etc. Looking back I realize the aesthetic was probably just “Tokyo in shitty weather,” but whatever, it felt exotic. Anyway, turns out all these sci-fi writers were only right about the greenhouse gas half of their dystopian futures because we’ll all actually just be dying in fires and floods pretty soon here—but it was fun to pretend while we could!
Tom McGeveran, co-editor of Capital New York
I figured out pretty early on that I wanted to be a philosophy professor—somewhere around sophomore year of high school. This seemed both a safe (ha!) and fulfilling (perhaps ha?) idea at the time, and it stayed with me for about seven or eight years.
I was going to go get a PhD in philosophy, and figure out some way of turning all of the stuff in common among followers of Derrida and his ilk, and Catholic theologians, and Talmudic scholars, into some kind of not-crazy, distinctly American moral philosophy that would matter, on the scale of John Rawls, but across metaphysics and epistemology and not just politics or ethics or law. I felt, in a way that seems adolescent in retrospect, probably because it was, like I alone realized they were speaking the same language and that our cause was against analytic and Anglo-American philosophy, which was doing lots of great stuff on its own but was much in danger of removing the most important questions of philosophy from the agenda.
I hadn’t quite figured it out yet—I thought the answers lay somewhere in the nexus you could find Thomas Merton, Gershom Scholem, and Derrida all crossing, and I was starting to think of Emmanuel Levinas as a weird lodestone.
I wasn’t serious enough not to want to fuck around after college a bit (where I took really only philosophy, language and history classes, and as few required courses as possible), as everyone did in the mid-90s, but I was pretty sure my fate was there waiting for me, as an inevitability.
But I had a rude awakening when I was accepted to zero philosophy PhD programs (apparently 23 year old white men who would like to simply try, again, to explain how absolutely everything works with a simple theory were not yet in vogue), and when I started hearing the stories of academics a few years older than me who were trying to get on. They all kind of high-fived each other when one of them got an appointment to a rural community college post in Alberta.
After my post-college rumspringa from academics, in which I switched low-paying temp and administrative jobs every couple months to keep being able to go out to gay bars, downtown performance art events and poetry readings, I realized I would never unlock that philosophical-diplomatic secret, never really figure any of that out, and that I would never be a world-changing poet or philosopher or priest. It was weirdly comforting: I was finally able to get down to work. And, I loved New York too much to ever consider leaving it.
Michelle Nijhuis, Smithsonian contributing writer
A few years ago, my alma mater sent me a copy of the application essay I wrote in 1990. (It was typed. With a typewriter, kids.) I cringed and put the envelope in a file. Now that The Awl has given me a reason to finally read it, I’ll risk humiliating my 17-year-old self—I can just hear the poor girl rolling her eyes—with an excerpt.
Once I thought that I wanted to be Something. I saw Something as a mystical title, indefinite but recognized by all: she is Something, isn’t he Something, wow aren’t they Something.
I did not know that in order to be Something, one must “exhibit leadership potential” but never realize that potential until the proper time. One must belong to many organizations and stand for many causes, but never weep or scream or take a radical stance on behalf of anyone in particular. One must always use a soft lead pencil, fill in the circle completely, and make the mark dark.
I didn’t realize that if you’re going to be Something, you certainly can’t walk up any waterfalls or sound any barbaric yawps (although you may read selected works of Walt Whitman. Selected mind you) or haunt any dusty bookshops or travel to any exotic foreign countries except for business purposes. You can’t drink fewer than eight glasses of water each day, and you can’t let someone lean on your shoulder without expecting something back. You can’t laugh at the world as you try to save it, and you can’t sing in the shower. And I keep telling you that there will be none of that kite flying while you’re on the way to being Something.
When I discovered all of this, I thought, well, isn’t that something. And being Something wasn’t very attractive any more, for suddenly I could be anything.
David Quammen, writer
When I was a boy I thought I wanted to be 1) a herpetologist, or 2) an entomologist, or 3) a writer. Slightly later, I focused on writing, and thought for a while the ideal career path would be writing satiric songs or else novels. Then I rediscovered the natural world, discovered science, discovered nonfiction.
Jessica Roy, tech reporter for the Observer and Betabeat
My favorite book as a kid was Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, a novel about an orphaned girl who climbs over the wall behind her orphanage and discovers this little cottage that she fixes up and turns into her own hideaway. I dreamed constantly of growing up and finding my own abandoned place like that where I could sit and read and be alone. I once found a pile of boards stacked against a tree in a wooded area near my house, but it turned out to be a homeless man’s squatting zone, so that didn’t turn out so well. I also used to scale this weeping willow tree by my elementary school and settle into the branches to read and pretend it was a secret place, but one day the school district decided to cut it down. A group of men arrived wielding tree cutting equipment and my fourth-grade teacher let me and a friend leave class so that we could go over and try to stop them from chopping down our favorite tree. The men just laughed at us. I stole a piece of bark from the doomed tree, which is probably still buried among love notes and paper fortune tellers in a box in my dad’s garage. I settled for building blanket forts and dreaming about publishing a novel “by age 25” in my bedroom after that.
Matt Soniak, Mental Floss blogger
1. I wanted to invent a machine that would efficiently squeeze toothpaste out of the tube for me, and not leave any little bits behind.
2. I was obsessed, around the age of eight or nine, with the idea of discovering a stable, hidden population of animals outside their native range. For a little while I was sure I had evidence of a group of marmosets living on the streets of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
3. I wanted to touch a boob.
I was an ambitious kid, I guess. I have since accomplished at least one of these things.
Clive Thompson, Wired columnist
I’m 43, so I started playing video games with Pong and Space Invaders. I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the arcades of Toronto, and I desperately wanted to make my own video games.
I figured if I had my own computer, I could have taught myself. But my parents, while totally middle class and able to buy one, wouldn’t. My mother argued I’d just use it to “waste time playing games.” She didn’t realize that playing games is a conduit to thinking about games and, for me anyway, learning how to program well enough that I could make my own. (Though she wasn’t entirely wrong either; I’d probably have blown a lot of schoolwork playing games.) I knew a bit of programming back then but not enough to make good games.
So I put my game-designing desires on the backburner and worked instead on my other big desire, which was to be a journalist. Luckily, that one worked out!
The great thing is that in the intervening years, learning programming has become easier and easier. I’ve always done bits of programming here and there, mostly so that I know, intellectually, what a language is capable of. But I never bothered to learn so much that I could make games. Now, however, there are a bunch of languages that are amazingly well suited to making interactive games, like Processing, or pieces of hardware for making interactive physical games, like the Arduino.
My six-year-old son recently asked me, in a hilarious generational echo, ‘Hey, how could we make our own video game?’ So I downloaded MIT’s free Scratch programming language, which is custom-designed for letting kids design games, and together we’ve designed a couple of games in the last few months. It is, as I’d suspected, a blast playing a game that you yourself have created.
In a way, I’m glad I never became a game designer, because—having met game designers, and gotten a glimpse beneath the hood—I doubt I’d be very good at it. It requires a type of devotion, creativity, and attention to detail that I do not really possess. But I’m glad that programming language for DIY game-making has become simple enough that one can now dabble in it. It’s a great hobby!
Nitasha Tiku, staff writer for the Observer and Betabeat
I was never one of those kids who took things apart just to put them back together, which is probably a leading indicator for becoming an inventor or builder (of physical things, code, etc.). Much like hurting animals –> serial killing. A friend once showed me the wire-y insides of a radio he’d pried open in his basement and I was like, Oh, so that’s how you figure out how things work. And not, as I did, by reading the book The Way Things Work, then promptly forgetting where lightning came from.
I wanted to discover excuses to stay indoors and read. Like rain or minor apocalypses. After my brother and I watched Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, set in limbo) I worried there might be cameras secretly taping you everywhere, so I’d check around for them, especially in other peoples’ bathrooms. Does that count as a “discovery”? Pretty sure I wanted to be good at everything and very special, eventually.
I tend to remember things very precisely or not at all, so I asked my parents.
He’s talking about my My Little Pony, which reminds me—I wanted someone to invent something that tasted as good as that plastic smelled.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, writer
Phillip Larkin invented sex in 1963. Masturbation was created twenty-five years later when I discovered it’s basic formula. During that period of time, I wanted nothing more than to invent a cure for masturbation, a painless antidote. My mission was partly successful by 1989 when I (finally) threw away my mother’s tattered and sodden copy of The Joy of Sex book I kept under my bed.
David Wagner, writer for The Atlantic Wire
It probably isn’t hip to admit that you were ever devoutly religious, but when my kindergarten teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I confidently answered, “a pope.” That’s right. Not the pope. A pope. I thought they were as common as firefighters and astronauts. Imagine my surprise when I found out that only one dude at a time got to ride around in the Popemobile.
I come from the kind of Catholic family that goes above and beyond attending mass every Sunday (people who don’t observe holy days of obligation aren’t real Catholics, after all). First holy communion, confession, confirmation—I went through the whole sacramental suite. I even did time as an altar boy and played in the church praise band (I know bragging is a sin, but man could I lift the Lord’s name on high). Other families teach kids to revere the President, or brain surgeons, or maybe engineers. But where I come from, no earthly mortal is more important than the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
I wasn’t all that disappointed to learn that my papal aspirations were highly unrealistic, just surprised. I guess it was the first time I realized that “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to” is more of a pat on the head than a true statement. I began cycling through other career choices. Those guys who flip signs at intersections, pointing drivers toward the furniture outlet, seemed pretty cool for a while. After seeing Jurassic Park, I pictured myself as an intrepid paleontologist. Later, I thought seriously about becoming that jazzy dude in Nordstrom who tinkles away at the piano. If someone would’ve told me that I’d grow up to write for the Internet, I would’ve said, “How can somebody write for Yahooligans?”
Now that I’m what you might call a lapsed Catholic, I look back on my younger self and chuckle. But after I get through chuckling, some wistfulness sets in. I no longer have any desire to be a pope, but I do sometimes wish my head were still filled with such innocent, naive dreams.
John Wenz, writer
I became an iffy believer in the concept of God sometime around when I was 13. And I was in Catholic school at the same time, which put me in a weird, weird place. After being told the concept of God and Heaven for so long, suddenly the most terrifying thought to me was the concept that of consciousness ending and that being it when I die. So of course my iffy understanding of science led me to the ultimate idea for an invention I couldn’t possibly implement: I wanted either a robotic body I could put my brain into and live forever, or I wanted to entirely digitize my brain and be able to live as a sentient computer program, like a really boring version of The Matrix entirely design to allay my fear of death. Some of the details of the robotic body have changed—I no longer need it to withstand the vacuum of space—I’m not entirely sure I’ve given up on this dream.
Related: What Books Make You Cringe To Remember?
Nadia Chaudhury wanted to somehow create the ability to stop time like the girl from Out of This World. She still wants it. Top photo and Gemini capsule illustration courtesy of NASA; photo of powered parachute by Derek Jensen; pony photo by Steve Lodefink; Popemobile photo by Broc.