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Invention as a Social Process

Date: 21-Apr-1995


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Note I found this essay I wrote in college on a disk. It sort of fits with the theme of technology, so I'm going to go ahead and put it up in case someone finds it useful or interesting. I made up a date for it, but it would have been written sometime in 1994 or 1995.
Who was the inventor of the computer? It sounds like a simple question that could be answered merely by looking in volume "C" of the Encyclopedia Britannica and jotting down the fact. Yet the issue is more complicated than it may at first seem. It is known that Charles Babbage had ideas about computers long before the technology existed to feasibly let him build one, but to call him the inventor of the computer would seem absurd.
At the same time, it would be inadequate to call anyone else the "inventor" when he or she obviously built upon Babbage's ideas. One can also see that computers have undergone a great deal of change in the past few decades, and to insist that supercomputers were "invented" by the person who built the earliest vacuum-tube calculators is definitely not accurate. Finally, we know that computers have undergone changes which society has imposed by making its demands on the market--so can we credit all of society with the invention of the computer?
The crux of our problem lies in the understanding of what is meant by the word "inventor." It is open for question whether "inventor" should suggest the person who came up with the initial idea for an item, the first person to build a working model, or the first person to successfully commercialize the invention. Obviously, for a new technology to ever make it into practical use, all three of these steps must be taken--but they will never be made all at once by the same individual, with no outside influences. In this essay, we will question the legitimacy of applying the term "inventor" to particular people in the cases of three very important inventions: the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light.

The Telegraph

In United States history, the man generally accredited with the invention of the telegraph is Samuel Morse. It is especially easy to remember Morse, because the code used on telegraphs bears his name. Yet surprisingly enough, it was a man who worked for Morse named Alfred Vail who invented the so-called "Morse Code" (Bowers, p 34). Another startling fact is that Sir Francis Ronalds had created a crude implementation of the telegraph as early as 1816, and the original concept was published in Scots Magazine in 1753 (Bowers, p 25).
Morse was also not the first person to successfully commercialize the telegraph; Cooke and Wheatstone had already patented their own in England (Bowers, p 25). In addition, developments on the telegraph did not suddenly stop after Morse's patent--engineers continued working on the problem of putting more signals on a telegraph wire for decades to come. We can see that Morse is actually famous because he managed to get a great deal of public attention by persuading the U.S. government to build a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington (Bowers, p 34). The actual process of invention itself occurred over a time period that lasted from 1753 up to the late 1870's.
It is also interesting to note society's part in modification of the telegraph. Originally, Morse's telegraph was built such that the letters of a message had to be typeset by hand before transmission, and the message would be printed out on a strip of paper on the receiving end (Kline). The operators, however, realized that they could communicate much faster by learning to "think" in Morse Code, so they skipped both the encoding and decoding steps. Because the world at large was not using Morse's converters, his only remaining contribution to the technology of telegraphs was Morse Code, which wasn't really his invention at all!

The Telephone

Everyone has heard the name of Alexander Graham Bell, who is widely regarded as having "invented" the telephone in 1876. But as with Morse and the telegraph, the story is not so simple. For one thing, Philip Reis invented a telephonic device 15 years before Bell ever did, although it didn't carry acceptable speech (Kline).
Also, Bell did not work alone. He derived much of his work from experiments done by the German physicist Herman von Helmholtz (Hounshell, p. 1307), and he pursued advice from the scientific community around him. In addition, Bell's patents were hotly contested by other inventors who were working on the telephone at the exact same time; the most notable was Elisha Gray, who applied for a telephone caveat on the same day as Bell (Hounshell, p. 1311).
Yet although Elisha Gray had as much to do with the technological development of the telephone as Bell did, it was Bell's vision of the telephone as a successful means of communication that carried him to fame. Whereas Reis and Gray saw the principles of telephony solely as curiosities of science, Bell wanted to make the telephone commercially viable. Bell, like Morse, was an inventor-entrepreneur, and it was mainly the manner of commercialization which brought Bell legendary status. As Hounshell says, "Bell will remain 'the inventor' of the telephone in the public mind" because his "scientific etiquette" was one of the critical reasons that he was able to gain "victory regarding priority" in the patent battle against Elisha Gray (Hounshell, p 1306).

The Electric Light

The invention of the electric light presents a slightly different story than with the telegraph and telephone, yet the same points can be addressed. Although the classic historical picture portrays Thomas Edison as having been a lone hero who invented the incandescent light bulb, he did not work alone. In fact, he had a team of scientists and engineers working for him at Menlo Park, one of the most advanced research and development laboratories of the time (Kline). There were also many other developers worldwide who were working on incandescent light at the same time as Edison, and they had met with varying degrees of success using different filaments and bulb media. Edison's success over these inventors was primarily due to the fact that his high- technology lab could get the best vacuum in the bulb, so that it shone brightly (Kline).
The arc lamp, on the other hand, is an exception to the cases discussed so far. Arc lighting was based on scientific principles known since 1802 by the British natural philosopher Humphry Davy, and because he was a scientist it was considered more of a "discovery" than an "invention". No one could patent arc lighting itself, so "inventors" had to add special features to make their particular arc lamp implementation unique enough to patent (Kline).
There were a stream of inventions by such figures as Jablochkoff, who created a system for driving arc lamps with AC to keep the positive carbon electrode from depleting twice as fast as the negative one, and Serrin, who invented a feedback regulator to keep the electrodes the proper distance apart (Kline). Yet no particular person has historically been given all of the credit, and this is one situation where the continuous process of historical invention has not been distorted into a discrete heroic event.


Due to the existence of "reverse salients," there are particular areas of intense technical study where invention is perceived as an absolute necessity (Kline). This concentrates many of the best minds in the world on the same issue at once, and as a result we see simultaneous invention taking place in each of the cases of the telegraph, telephone, and electric light.
Secondly, all inventors must collaborate to some extent--in fact, collaboration and discussion is necessary for an "inventor" if he or she wants to win future patent battles. We see this kind of indirect and informal collaboration with Bell, Morse, and also with Edison--who even established his own kind of collaboration involving a lab of people working together.
Finally, systems are not only what inventors make them but also how people apply them, and with each of these threeinventions the development was affected by society. Bell did not think about the social uses of the telephone, but these were what made it truly succeed. Morse didn't realize that operators would shun his complicated typesetting machine and play the telegraph by ear--he even "did not approve of the practice" (Bowers, p 34).
All of the above examples illustrate that it is rarely the person who had the original idea or created the first working model who receives credit as the "inventor" of an item. Usually the individuals who are historically the most remembered are the inventor-entrepreneurs, who were not only able to build their invention but are also able to "sell" their work. In the cases of Morse, Bell, and Edison, it was such a distinction that allowed them to gain an so much recognition. Yet we can safely say that it is misleading to give all the credit for an invention a single individual, when so many others are involved over an extended period of time.
This essay is not an attempt to belittle these historical figures, who of course played a significant part in the "process of invention" of their respective items. Rather, it tries to put into perspective the gradual and interactive process of invention that occurs--not in a single instant at a laboratory workbench, but over a broad time period in the scientific community all over the world.
As it currently stands, patent law must recognize a single individual or corporation as having been the "inventor" of an item, and as historians we have a reason to be interested in who legally ended up with the patent rights. But we should not be confined to thinking that one person is the "inventor," since there are always many people involved, each contributing in varying degrees. We must realize that it isn't solely the original thinker, patent holder, or entrepreneur who deserves all the credit for the creation of new technologies--only then can the continuous and gradual nature of invention be completely understood.
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