04/04/06 - inventions

In today's excerpt - examining the 'heroic theory of invention':

"... the commonsense view of invention ... overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison.  That 'heroic theory of invention', as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted.  Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work.  From a patent lawyer's perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors, like Athena springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.

"In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim 'X invented Y.'  For instance, we are regularly told 'James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,' supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a teakettle's spout.  Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work.  Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that Frenchman Denis Papin designed ... around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. ...

"All this is not to deny that Watts greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder) just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery's."


Jared Diamond


Guns, Germs and Steel: the fates of human societies


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 1999, 1997 by Jared Diamond


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