Tuesday, February 02, 2016

More on Edison and the light bulb and ethical norms in intellectual property scholarship

As a followup to the IPBiz post Ethical norms in "intellectual property" scholarship?, which pertained to an open letter expressing concern over an influx of large contributions from corporate and private actors who have an economic stake in ongoing policy debates in the field, IPBiz notes some further issues with publications in law reviews. The open letter had noted:

Rather, the articles are chosen and edited by law students whose knowledge of methodological flaws and potential biases may be limited. Law journals generally do not request information on conflicts of interest and do not require disclosure of such information.

Recognizing that a failure to disclose conflicts of interest is a problem in law reviews, IPBiz notes that re-publishing of previous concepts, and the publishing of inaccurate information are both problems with some law reviews. Student editors are unlikely to have strong familiarity with the technical concepts that form the subject of many law review articles in the area of intellectual property.

The previous post on IPBiz had allluded to some of the problems in the text

Separately, some commentary from Lisa Larrimore Ouellette related to Lemley's Myth of the Solo Inventor, and "review" of law review articles:

Lemley isn't making any claims about the scope of the patents these inventors received, so whether "bamboo" appears in Edison's patent is irrelevant. Rather, his claim is a historical one: that while society thinks of Edison as stepping into vacuum and independently creating this pioneering invention, he was really building on others' ideas much more than the canonical myth suggests. I don't think Lemley did original research on this - he relied on peer-reviewed articles like this one - and it is possible that the scholars he relies on got the history wrong. But I don't think your post on ezinearticles about whether Edison was a patent troll really addresses this historical claim.

Thanks for citing your article about Lemley's claim that "[t]he transistor was originally conceived primarily as useful in hearing aids" (to make it easier for others reading these comments, here is a link to your article on Hein, and the relevant page is 86). I haven't carefully checked your sources (just as I don't carefully check the sources of articles I blog about, since this is a blog, not a law review), but it looks like you are right that this is as much a myth as the other myths Lemley debunks!

link: http://writtendescription.blogspot.com/2011/06/lemley-myth-of-sole-inventor.html

As to the idea of a "canonical myth" that Edison solely invented the incandescent light bulb, the text in the ezine article

Although not widely discussed, the application for Edison's famous US Patent No. No. 223,898,
granted January 27, 1880, was involved in an interference with competing inventors Sawyer and
Man and Edison lost on the contested point.

Following up, the successors to Sawyer and Man challenged Edison's patent.

Link: http://EzineArticles.com/221598

These well-documented legal battles of more than 100 years ago suggest that there were issues in the 19th century about
"who" invented the light bulb. And, lest we forget, Edison flat out lost the inventorship battle to Swan in Britain.

Were all these disputes forgotten in the 20th century? No! In the 1992 book "They All Laughed" by Ira Flatlow (HarperCollins. Dewey 609), there is an entire chapter devoted to the inventorship disputes, titled "Whose Light Bulb? Edison in a New Light").
Flatlow does recognize Edison's distinction from the others: "Only Edison designed his lamp, from the beginning, to be part of a total electrical system the size of city..." The problem, of course, was that Edison stuck to DC, rather than AC, the eventual winner.

Any suggestion that anyone thought Edison was like a solo inventor working in his garage is purely a myth. Edison courted publicity. On October 20, 1878, Edison stated: "I have just solved the problem of the subdivision of the electric light." This quote was enough to drive down the stock prices of suppliers of gas for lighting. But Edison had not solved the problem, and he hired Francis Upton. At this point, Edison's people began to search published patents and the works of others in incandescent lighting. Edison and his team realized they needed a lighting element of high resistance, with the lighting accomplished by a high voltage.

It is interesting to note that the design disclosed in US Patent No. No. 223,898, granted January 27, 1880, never worked well enough to be commercially marketed (See Flatlow, page 19). The 13.5 hour life of the carbon thread filament was obtained October 21, 1879 [lab notebook entry October 22, 1879] and the application was filed in November 1879. Significantly, this patent did not disclose the use of bamboo, which was needed to produce a relatively long-lived bulb (and was not announced until July 1880).

Flatlow discusses Edison mythology:

According to light bulb mythology--aided years later by Hollywood--there occurred one magical day, October 21, 1879, on which the world stopped turning: the day Edison discovered the secret of the incandescent lamp--carbon.


How this almost magical story of Edison hitting upon carbon as the answer to his problems got started is not difficult to piece together. It's not hard to imagine how an eager public--aided by erroneous press reports, romanticized notions of the inventor, and sketchy evidence--could create the aura of revelation akin to Moses on Mount Sinai.

AND Flatlow discusses how an inaccurate story in the New York Herald on December 21, 1879 moved the myth along. Therein, Edison rolled a filament from lampblack and obtained a bulb that burned for 40 hours.

On January 1, 1880, the science journal Nature published a letter of Joseph Swan, which included the text: "Fifteen years ago, I used charred paper and card in the construction of an electric lamp on the incandescent principle. I used it, too, in the shape of a horseshoe, precisely, as you say, Mr. Edison is now using it."

Similarly, in the 21st century, there are publications on the complexity of "who" invented the light bulb. See for example, Harold Evans, "They Made America," LittleBrown, 2004.

Evans alludes to the patent battles on page 167.

Evans confirms the point that Edison read the available prior art. At page 161: "Edison had gone back to basics, studying in detail what everyone had tried before."

Evans also recognized that Edison saw the light bulb as part of a bigger picture. "... marketing an electric light bulb was the least of it. He had to invent the electrical industry."

In this, Edison was an innovator. "in the early 1870s, he recruited three men who would be crucial to his graduation from inventor to innovator..."

***Of the point of the -- inaccurate story in the New York Herald on December 21, 1879 --, one does recall the allegation that the inventors of the transistor foresaw its use only for hearing aids, based upon a non-existent story in the New York Times.


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