[This is an excerpt from The Myths of Innovation, Chapter 5: The Myth of the Lone Inventor]
Who invented the electric light? No, it wasn’t Thomas Edison. Two lesser-known inventors, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan (who won a patent lawsuit against Edison), both developed working electric lights well before Edison. Think Ford invented the automobile? Wrong again. Unfortunately, popular credit for major innovations isn’t brokered by historians: it’s driven by markets, circumstance, and popularity, forces not bound by accuracy. Often, even historians have trouble sorting it out. Here’s what the U.S. Library of Congress has to say on the subject, specific to the automobile:
This question [who invented it] does not have a straightforward answer. The history of the automobile is very rich and dates back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for transport vehicles. There are many different types of automobiles—steam, electric, and gasoline—as well as countless styles. Exactly who invented the automobile is a matter of opinion. If we had to give credit to one inventor, it would probably be Karl Benz from Germany. Many suggest that he created the first true automobile in 1885/1886.
If the librarians at the largest library in the world don’t know, how could we? There are similar complexities surrounding most innovations, from the first steam engines to personal computers or even airplanes (no, it’s not the Wright brothers). As simple as it should be, innovation history is complicated. Most innovations are not the solid, tangible, independent things we imagine them to be. Each one is made up of threads and relationships that don’t separate easily or yield simple answers.
For example, take the electric light. When Edison sat down to design the lightbulb, he was far from the first person to try. If several people were trying to make it work, who deserves the credit? Would it be enough to come up with the idea itself? Have a prototype? Would it matter how long the prototype stayed alight? How bright it burned? How many people witnessed it? How many bulbs were sold? Would it matter whether they cost $5,000,000 per bulb or weighed 500,000 pounds? Depending on which question is seen as most important, different names surface as the rightful owner of the title “inventor.” However, as folks at the U.S. Library of Congress suggest, there is no guidebook: the rules change from innovation to innovation. While there is some guidance for resolving these issues, before we get to explore them, things get worse.
Beyond the innovation itself, there is the problem of precedence: various invented light sources date back as far as 70,000 BCE. The idea of a lightbulb, a small portable object that gives light, is beyond ancient—it’s older than the screw (500 BCE), the wheel (3000 BCE), and the sword (5000 BCE). The inventors of torches, candles, and lamps through history are mostly unnamed, but they certainly contributed to Swan’s, Davy’s, and Edison’s thinking (not to mention proving to the world the value of being able to easily see the way to the bathroom after sunset). In similar fashion, web sites derive layouts and graphic design techniques from newspapers, which are based on the early typographies of the printing press, and on it goes. All innovations today are bound to innovations of the past.
And if that’s not enough, there are the people who developed the glassmaking techniques required for the bulbs, the copper mining and metal refinement processes for the filaments, and countless other forgotten creators of the tools, machines, and mathematics Edison and other innovators used. Certainly their anonymous contributions were essential to the innovation known as the lightbulb: remove them from the past, and in that same puff of history changing smoke, the electric light we know disappears.
The answer to the list of questions above is simple: Edison, Ford, and countless innovators are recognized as sole inventors for convenience. The histories we know depart from the truth for the simple reason that it makes them easier to remember.
Read the rest of Chapter 5, The Myth of The Lone Inventor, in the Myths of Innovation