Forget Edison: This is How History's Greatest Inventions Really Happened

The myth of the solitary inventor -- in 8 short stories

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The world's most famous inventors are household names. As we all know, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone, and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

Except they didn't. The ideas didn't spring, Athena-like, fully formed from their brains. In fact, they didn't spring fully formed from anybody's brains. That is the myth of the lonely inventor and the eureka moment.

"Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions," Mark A. Lemley writes in his fascinating paper The Myth of the Sole Inventor. Lemley's paper concentrates on the history and problems of patents. But he also chronicles the history of the 19th and 20th century's most famous inventors -- with an emphasis on how their inventions were really neither theirs, nor inventions. Here is a super-quick summary of his wonderful distillation of the last 200 years in collaborative innovation.

439px-Patent_for_Cotton_Gin_(1794)_-_hi_res.jpgCOTTON GIN

The fabric cotton comes from cotton fibers that mix with seeds in the pods of cotton plants. To make the fabric, therefore, you have to separate the fibers from the seeds. For centuries this was done mostly by hand, until Eli Whitney "invented" the cotton gin in 1793. But various forms of roller gins (i.e. technologies for separating fibers from seeds) had been around for thousands of years. Five years earlier, in 1788, Joseph Eve developed his own mechanized self-feeding roller gin. Whitney's true innovation was to improve existing cotton gins by "replacing rollers with coarse wire teeth that rotated through slits to pull the fiber from the seed." If this insight was a breakthrough, the glory goes to Whitney only he was faster than his competitors. In 1795, John Barcley filed a patent on a gin featuring circles of teeth -- awfully similar to Whitney's wire-tooth model (see left). In short, the modern cotton gin was a eureka moment that multiple inventors experienced nearly simultaneously and was expedited by their competition.


As the tale goes, Samuel Morse was having dinner with friends and debating electromagnetism (like you do) when he realized that if an electrical signal could travel instantly across a wire, why couldn't information do the same? Like most fun eureka stories, L-Telegraph1.pngit's a fib. The telegraph was invented by not only Morse, but also Charles Wheatstone, Sir William Fothergill Cooke, Edward Davy, and Carl August von Steinhiel so near to each other that the British Supreme Court refused to issue one patent. It was Joseph Henry, not Morse, who discovered that coiling wire would strengthen electromagnetic induction. Of Morse's key contribution -- the application of Henry's electromagnets to boost signal strength -- Lemley writes that "it is not even clear that he fully understood how that contribution worked."


Like Morse, Alexander Graham Bell invented a technology that would later bear his name. But how much did he deserve it? The problem that Bell solved was to turn electrical signals into sounds. But this was such an obvious extension of the telegraph that there were many people working on it. Philip Reis had already designed a sound transmitter in 1860, and Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (one guy) had already built a receiver. Bell's real contribution was "to vary the strength of the current to capture variations in voice and sound," Lemley writes. In this tweak, he was racing against Thomas Edison. Even Bell's final product -- which combined transmitter, fluctuating current, and receiver -- had company. Elisha Gray filed a patent application on the exact same day as Bell, only to lose the patent claim in court. Lemly's conclusion: "Bell's iconic status owes as much to his victories in court and in the marketplace as at the lab bench."


As just about everyone is taught, Thomas Edison invented the light-bulb. And as just about everyone later learns, Thomas Edison in no way invented the light-bulb. Electric lighting existed before him, incandescent light bulbs existed before him, and when other inventors got wind of Edison's tinkerings, they roundly sued him for patent infringement. So what did Edison actually do? He discovered that a special species of bamboo had a higher resistance to electricity than carbonized paper, which means it could more efficiently produce light. Edison got rich off the bamboo, and filthy disgusting rich from superior manufacturing and marketing of his product. But within a generation other inventors had developed better filaments and today's light-bulbs


Most of these stories here are about how we mistake incremental improvements for eureka moments. But the story of the movie projector is simpler. It's basically a story about theft. Francis Jenkins built what we consider the ur-instrument of the motion-picture industry with a projector that showed strips of films for 1/24th of a second, creating the illusion of moving pictures. But his financial backer stole the Jenkins prototype and sold it to a theater chain, which called it the "Edison Vitascope" for no better reason than the word Edison was familiar and useful for branding. That Edison was tinkering with his own movie projector is true, but besides the point. His legacy here was mostly the work of a thief.


1885Benz.jpgToday's cars bear the names of their founders and innovators: Benz, Peugeot, Renault. But have you ever heard of a Dodge bicycle? Or a Mercedes tricycle? In fact, both companies specialized in bikes before moving the autos. The car industry represents the epitome of incremental innovation. Take a tricycle. Add an engine. You've got a car. (Just look at the picture to the right, of the the original Benz Motorwagen from 1885). Condensing the invention of cars to those six words leaves out a lot of detail and a few main characters. It was Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach who designed the first four-wheel car with a four-stroke engine and Henry Ford who perfected the assembly line. But the long story short is that the car was a typical "invention" that was far too complicated for one person to conceive on his won.

399px-Wright_Flyer_III_above.jpgTHE AIRPLANE

Speaking of building bikes, that's exactly what Orville and Wilbur Wright did before they became the first team to fly a heavier-than-air machine. But, as we've learned, every great inventor stands on the shoulders of giants. When the Wright brothers asked the Smithsonian for all available information on the history of flight in 1899, they opened  a history that had begun with DaVinci's scribbling and continued all the way to the 19th century gliders of Otto Liliental. But the Wrights solved one of the most nagging problems facing airplane developers -- stability -- by having "a single cable warp the wing and turn the rudder at the same time." That was the tweak that put the first plane in the air.


The "Farnsworth Invention" was named after Philo T. Farnsworth, the nominal father of television. But his invention was neither his nor an invention. Teams of scientists and tinkerers all around the world were working to build, essentially, a radio for images -- i.e.: to combine the technology of a wireless telegraph with the magic of a movie projector. One key was the cathode ray tube, a vacuum with an electron gun that beams images onto screen that can receive or transmit signals. But the cathode ray tube itself has so many fathers that it's difficult to say exactly who invented even the central organ of the television, much less the television itself. In 1927, Farnsworth projected a straight line on a machine he called the Image Dissector, which is truly the basis for the all-electronic television. But, unlike Edison, he was not as gifted at marketing, producing, and becoming a household name for his tweak. "It may be accurate to describe Farnsworth as an inventor of the television, but surely not as the inventor," Lemley writes.


At the end of this section, Lemley lists four inventors who, yeah, okay, really were alone. But the funny thing about the exceptions is that they're almost all accidents.

Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial properties of penicillin because a sample of bacteria had accidentally been contaminated with mold. No one is sure where the mold came from; Fleming's discovery was true serendipity. Even in that case, there is some evidence that others made the same accidental discovery. The adhesive behind the Post-It note was developed in 1968, and languished in 3M for six years before a different 3M employee hit on the idea of putting it to use attaching a bookmark to a book.

Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanized rubber when a batch of rubber was accidentally left on a stove; Goodyear had previously thought that heat was a problem for rubber, not the solution.

Wilson Greatbatch developed the pacemaker when he accidentally grabbed the wrong resistor from a box when he was completing a circuit.

Louis Daguerre invented film when, having failed to produce an image on an iodized silver plate, he put the plate away in a cabinet filled with chemicals and the fumes from a spilled jar of mercury produced an image on the plate.

It would seem that eureka is Greek for "oops."

Images above from top: the cotton gin patent by Eli Whitney; a Morse key; Edison's patent; the Benz patent; the Wright brothers take off, 1905; All credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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