11/30/10 - the inventor

In today's excerpt - the many inventors of the telephone and the importance of inventors:

"[In 1876], Alexander Bell was in his laboratory in the attic of a machine shop in Boston, trying once more to coax a voice out of a wire. His efforts had proved mostly futile, and the Bell Company was little more than a typical hopeless start-up. Bell was a professor and an amateur inventor, with little taste for business: his expertise and his day job was teaching the deaf. His main investor and the president of the Bell Company was Gardiner Green Hubbard, a patent attorney and prominent critic of the telegraph monopoly Western Union. It is Hubbard who was responsible for Bell's most valuable asset: its telephone patent, filed even before Bell had a working prototype. Besides Hubbard, the company had one employee, Bell's assistant, Thomas Watson. That was it. ...

"On the very day that Alexander Bell was registering his invention, another man, Elisha Gray, was also at the patent office filing for the very same breakthrough. The coincidence takes some of the luster off Bell's 'eureka.' And the more you examine the history, the worse it looks. In 1861, sixteen years before Bell, a German man named Johann Philip Reis presented a primitive telephone to the Physical Society of Frankfurt. ... Germany has long considered Reis the telephone's inventor. Another man, a small-town Pennsylvania electrician named Daniel Drawbaugh, later claimed that by 1869 he had a working telephone in his house. He produced prototypes and seventy witnesses who testified that they had seen or heard his invention at that time. In litigation before the Supreme Court in 1888, three justices concluded that 'overwhelming evidence' proved that 'Drawbaugh produced and exhibited in his shop, as early as 1869, an electrical instrument by which he transmitted speech.' ...

"There was, it is fair to say, no single inventor of the telephone. And this reality suggests that what we call invention, while not easy, is simply what happens once a technology's development reaches the point where the next step becomes available to many people. By Bell's time, others had invented wires and the telegraph, had discovered electricity and the basic principles of acoustics. It lay to Bell to assemble the pieces: no mean feat, but not a superhuman one. In this sense, inventors are often more like craftsmen than miracle workers.

"Indeed, the history of science is full of examples of what the writer Malcolm Gladwell terms 'simultaneous discovery'—so full that the phenomenon represents the norm rather than the exception. Few today know the name Alfred Russel Wallace, yet he wrote an article proposing the theory of natural selection in 1858, a year before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Leibnitz and Newton developed calculus simultaneously. And in 1610 four others made the same lunar observations as Galileo. ...

"Is the loner and outsider inventor, then, merely a figment of so much hype, with no particular significance? No, I would argue his significance is enormous; but not for the reasons usually imagined. The inventors we remember are significant not so much as inventors, but as founders of 'disruptive' industries, ones that shake up the technological status quo. Through circumstance or luck, they are exactly at the right distance both to imagine the future and to create an independent industry to exploit. ...

"The importance of the outsider here owes to his being at the right remove from the prevailing currents of thought about the problem at hand. That distance affords a perspective close enough to understand the problem, yet far enough for greater freedom of thought, freedom from, as it were, the cognitive distortion of what is as opposed to what could be. This innovative distance explains why so many of those who turn an industry upside down are outsiders, even outcasts. ...

"Another advantage of the outside inventor is less a matter of the imagination than of his being a disinterested party. Distance creates a freedom to develop inventions that might challenge or even destroy the business model of the dominant industry. The outsider is often the only one who can afford to scuttle a perfectly sound ship, to propose an industry that might challenge the business establishment or suggest a whole new business model. Those closer to—often at the trough of—existing industries face a remarkably constant pressure not to invent things that will ruin their employer. The outsider has nothing to lose.

"But to be clear, it is not mere distance, but the right distance that matters; there is such a thing as being too far away. It may be that Daniel Drawbaugh actually did invent the telephone seven years before Bell. We may never know; but even if he did, it doesn't really matter, because he didn't do anything with it. He was doomed to remain an inventor, not a founder, for he was just too far away from the action to found a disruptive industry. In this sense, Bell's alliance with Hubbard, a sworn enemy of Western Union, the dominant monopolist, was all-important. For it was Hubbard who made Bell's invention into an effort to unseat Western Union."


Tim Wu


Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires


First Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2010 by Tim Wu


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