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

Publication Date: 
June 15, 2012
Source: 
The Atlantic
Author: 
Derek Thompson

Professor Mark Lemley’s paper “The Myth of the Sole Inventor,” which breaks down the idea that invention occurs independently, is the basis for the below article in The Atlantic.

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.

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... 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."

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... 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."

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... 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.