Chapter 5. The lone inventor The lone inventor > The convenience of lone inventors

5. The lone inventor

Who invented the electric light? No, it wasn't Thomas Edison. Two lesser-known inventors, Humphrey Davy and Joseph Swan, 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 [Chapter 5. The lone inventor] ). 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.

[Chapter 5. The lone inventor] Bet that got you to look at the footnotes. The Wright brothers were first to demonstrate sustained powered flight of a certain distance. But balloons, kites, gliders, and some powered winged vehicles did fly before. More so, the Wright brothers were great researchers and students, learning from birds as well as their competitors. Fred Kelly, The Wright Brothers (Dover, 1989).

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).[double dagger] 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.

[double dagger] It was hard to find hard evidence about the origins of all three of these ancient inventions, so the truth is that we're not really sure. The best single reference on the origins of ancient innovations is Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (Ballentine Books, 1994).

[§] A concise history can be found at

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.

1. The convenience of lone inventors

This tendency extends to the names of things. As a kid, I laughed when my grandparents called every refrigerator "Fridgidaire"— the first brand of consumer refrigerator in America (1919)[||] —until I realized I often use brand names, such as Kleenex, Band-Aid, Ziploc, Frisbee, or Post-it Notes, as many people do, in similarly incorrect fashion. [#] Since those were the names I first associated with their respective innovations (tissues, adhesive bandage strips, resealable bags, etc.), they stayed with me. Even though I now know some of them were not the first brand to exist, or when I'm aware I'm using a similar product made by a competitor, I often thoughtlessly use the wrong name.


[#] In 2006, Harris Interactive published a brand study of the product names that have the strongest dominance and recognition for that product line. Other dominant brand names are Heinz (ketchup), Clorox (bleach), and Hershey's (chocolate):

Ford and Edison paid for marketing campaigns to promote their innovations, businesses, and themselves. As businessmen, they had every reason to promote their work in ways that suggested they deserved every last drop of credit. They became media darlings of their times, appearing in interviews and books, and benefiting— just as star CEOs of today—from the power of public attention. It became convenient for journalists to write in an Edison-or Fordcentric view because making the inventors star characters increased the public's interest in the news.

Innovators became easy heroes in America; people preferred to believe, and tell, positive stories about them rather than the less interesting, and more complicated, truths. Would anyone in 1917, during WWI, have cared to know that the Duryea brothers, and not Ford, started the first American car company? [**] Or that Ford owed homage to Leonardo da Vinci, Karl Benz, and others with strange names from foreign lands? Those details, no matter how honest, painted a complex and less patriotic story, which writers on competitive deadlines avoided. The small oversights that were necessary to cram complex truths into simple hero-shaped tales were convenient and comfortable for everyone—from newspapers to journalists to readers and their heroes—and it still happens today.


One popular example is Apple Inc., well recognized as the innovative company behind the user-friendly Macintosh and the iPod digital music player. However, history shows that the first products of those types were made by others years earlier. The first graphical user interfaces, mice, and desktop computers were developed by Xerox PARC and SRI systems in the 1970s, nearly a decade before Apple's first Macintosh in 1984. The first iPod, sold in 2001, was late to the game by years—digital music players from SaeHan, Diamond Multimedia, and Creative labs, using flash memory and similar core design concepts sold in the late 1990s. And of course the Sony Walkman, first sold in 1979, was the true progenitor of the idea of personal, portable music.

Apple, like Edison, earned well-deserved credit for vastly improving existing ideas, refining them into excellent products, and developing them into businesses, but Apple did not invent the graphical user interface, the computer mouse, or the digital music player. Similarly, Google did not invent the search engine, and Nintendo did not invent the video game. They deserve credit for many things, but other companies established the ideas and proved the concepts behind them. We want innovation explained in neat packages, but we also want to acclaim the right people for the right reasons: rarely do both happen simultaneously, unlike the invention of things themselves.