The myth of the solitary inventor -- in 8 short stories
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.
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,
it'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.