Today, we look for the real source of invention.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I tell people that
Morse and Marconi didn't invent the telegraph and
the radio, they ask, "Then who did?" Actually, many
people did, and nobody did. And that does little to
satisfy our primal craving to identify somebody as
No complex technology is invented by one person.
Worse yet, seminal ideas almost always come from
people who fail to make them work the way they
Look at the light bulb.
In 1802 the great electro-chemist Sir Humphry Davy showed he could
cast light by passing electricity through a
platinum strip. You'd hardly call that a light
bulb. Yet it was close. Later Davy imposed a large
voltage across the air gap between two carbon
electrodes. He created a primitive arc lamp. As a
result, England had commercial arc lights long
In 1820 de la Rue made an incandescent light in
France. He wound a platinum coil in an evacuated
glass tube. Twenty years later, a London theatre
was lit with such lamps. They were hopelessly
inefficient, but they did cast light.
Joseph Swan made a carbon-filament light bulb in
1878 -- three years before Edison did. Edison
finally made his own bulb and an electric supply
system. But then he had to take Swan into
partnership to get around Swan's patent.
So who invented the light bulb! The answer is that
it represented a huge outpouring of human
ingenuity. It is a technology with many heroes. The
first electric light wasn't a workable bulb at all.
If, on the other hand, you credit Edison, you honor
success, not the primacy of ideas. And success
reflects genius of an entirely different order.
When you search backward, looking for the first
anything, you find only false starts, anonymity,
and failure. John Fitch ran
the first American steamboat line in 1790. But his
business failed, and he eventually committed
suicide. Before Fitch, the Marquis du Jouffroy made
a steamboat, but the French wouldn't license him to
run it. Then the Revolutionary government drove him
out of France. And all that was long before Fulton.
The first-inventor myth gets in the way of
invention. The real heroes aren't the great
successes -- Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford.
The people we must learn to honor are the anonymous
failures who've planted the seed and let others
pick the fruit. We need ways to encourage people
who fail ten times before they succeed once. We
must find ways to honor embryonic ingenuity --
because the things we create are always alien,
imperfect, and seemingly irrelevant in their
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds