Innovation Myths in Schoolhouse Rock
When lecturing about creativity I often ask the crowd how they know what they know – How do we really know Edison invented the lightbulb, or that Newton got hit by an apple? A common answer from audiences of my generation is the popular cartoon Schoolhouse Rock. It’s curious how we dismiss things by saying “it’s just for kids”, but what happens when those kids grow up?
I loved Schoolhouse rock as a child, and it’s probably the only reason I know what a conjunction is. But in watching a local performance of the musical based on the TV show, I found some problems with the stories that I learned, stories I researched for The Myths of Innovation.
- Newton did not get hit by an apple – at best he watched one fall in his grove decades before he completed his treatise on gravity (From the song Victim of Gravity). See The Myth of Epiphany for more about Newton.
- Robert Fulton didn’t invent the steamboat. He was, however, one of the first Americans to make a successful business of it, much like Edison and the light bulb. (From the song Mother Necessity)
- Galileo most likely did not perform the famous falling bodies experiment at Pisa (From the song Victim of Gravity).
- It’s disputed whether Franklin ever flew his famous kite, though he did have the idea (From Electricity).
- Elias Howe did not build the first working sewing machine. He was the first American to do so, but that’s not the same thing. Same for Ford and the automobile. (From the song Mother Necessity).
- Betsy Ross may not have sewn the first U.S. flag, as most claims come from her relatives. (From the song Sufferage).
The story of Newton, and epiphany in general, is the subject of chapter 1 of the Myths of Innovation, titled The Myth of Epiphany which you can read about here.
Ford was actually far from the first American to build an automobile, he just designed a better one. Have you read John Lienhard’s books How Invention Begins and Inventing Modern. Fun to read (at least my students like them), thoughtful history of technology.
Never underestimate early-childhood programming. A friend one year behind me in high school reported that his history class, when given a quiz in which they had to write out the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, AS ONE began humming the “We the People” song so they could remember the words. Sadly, the lyrics omit “of the United States” after “We the People,” and consequently, many lost points.
That four word omission has driven me nuts ever since I grew old enough to become aware of it. It escapes me why it was necessary, as i don’t believe it would’ve been impossible to make the song scan properly with the single added phrase.