The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, Falmouth, the 175-year old charity promoting local innovation, wants to hear about problems people throughout Cornwall face every day, for a major new invention challenge later this year.

The Polytechnic Society was a major force behind Cornwall's rise to industrial prominence during the 19th Century, and inspired a string of important inventions by setting challenges and offering prizes to scientists and engineers.

Now, to coincide with its anniversary year, the Society is returning to its roots with a major new competition - putting a modern-day problem to Cornwall's latest crop of engineering and design experts - and would like local people to suggest a suitable challenge.

Trustee Professor Colin Roberts explains: "We want to set a challenge for Assistive Technology, which can be any item that's designed to help someone - especially an older or disabled person - to be more independent.

"We'd therefore like individuals and organisations throughout Cornwall to tell us about everyday difficulties which limit people's independence, and might be solved by a new invention, or an improvement to an existing product. One of these will be chosen to form the basis of our invention challenge, and the person or group that put it forward will receive £500 as a token of our thanks."

In common with its challenges in Victorian times, the Society hopes the new competition will improve people's lives, and boost Cornish businesses.

Vice chairman Keith Hambly-Staite says: "The aging population, along with the increasing emphasis on providing health and social care in people's own homes, means that Assistive Technology will be a growth industry for years to come. Stimulating and supporting local innovation in this key sector will be a great bonus - not only to those who will personally benefit from the winning invention, but also for the local economy which could see new business opportunities emerging - an exact mirror of our Society's founding aims back in 1833."

The determination to enable people with disabilities and other difficulties to enjoy active, independent lives is increasingly giving rise to astonishing new inventions combining cutting-edge technology with quality design. Just weeks ago, the UK saw its first dealership for the Martin Conquest: a sleek, high-performance motorcycle specifically designed to be driven from a wheelchair.

However, Assistive Technology does not have to be futuristic, and the challenge could focus on a design improvement to an existing product, as much as an ambitious new invention. Everyday examples include telephones supplied by RNID, that have a flashing light to show visually when someone is calling, or even a simple pair of glasses.

Professor Roberts continues: "Spectacles are a great example of a major redesign that revolutionised people's lives. Although glasses have been around since the 13th Century, they were wobbly and hand-held. Nobody thought of adding the arms to rest on your ears for over 400 years!

"In the same way, we hope the public will help us to spot an area where a fresh approach might make a real difference to real people every day."

Forms to submit suggestions for the challenge can be obtained from the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, 24 Church Street, Falmouth; 01326 314566 or Entries close on Monday, 28th April.

The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society was founded in 1833 by the Fox family - a prominent Quaker shipping family based in Falmouth - to promote ideas and inventions among local workers. This is the first recorded use of the word "Polytechnic" in Britain. The Polytechnic Hall was built in Church Street in 1835, for "objects connected with the sciences, arts and literature".

The Society continued to play a prominent role in Cornwall's industrial, mining and fishing development throughout the 19th Century, attracting eminent scientists and encouraging invention through prizes and exhibitions. Through its influence, Falmouth hosted some of the world's first public demonstrations of photography and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and Nobel blew out a wall while demonstrating his new invention, Nitroglycerine, for the first time.

Today, the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society still pursues its founding aim - the promotion of innovation and creativity in the community - while its trading subsidiary, "The Poly", raises funds for this important work by presenting an intelligent programme of arts and world cinema in the original Polytechnic Hall.