Wednesday, February 03, 2016

More on the Myth of the Solo Inventor

Following up on the discussion of Edison, it is hard to fathom anyone placing the Edison circa 1880 as anything like a solo inventor. He had a big team working on the light bulb (and electrical current) matters.

There is an important footnote to the story. Edison noted deposits forming in his light bulb, and followed up on the observation. Edison obtained a patent for a voltage-regulating device using the effect on November 15, 1883 (U.S. patent 307,031. However, because Edison was not an "AC" man, he never perceived that his device could be used as a rectifier (diode). As wikipedia notes: The British physicist John Ambrose Fleming, working for the British "Wireless Telegraphy" Company, discovered that the Edison Effect could be used to detect radio waves. Fleming went on to develop the two-element vacuum tube known as the diode, which he patented on November 16, 1904.

**Returning to "solo inventors," within the abstract of Lemley's "Myth of the Solo Inventor," one finds:

The canonical story of the lone genius inventor is largely a myth. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he found a bamboo fiber that worked better as a filament in the light bulb developed by Sawyer and Man, who in turn built on lighting work done by others. Bell filed for his telephone patent on the very same day as an independent inventor, Elisha Gray; the case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which filled an entire volume of U.S. Reports resolving the question of whether Bell could have a patent despite the fact that he hadn’t actually gotten the invention to work at the time he filed. The Wright Brothers were the first to fly at Kitty Hawk, but their plane didn’t work very well, and was quickly surpassed by aircraft built by Glenn Curtis and others – planes that the Wrights delayed by over a decade with patent lawsuits.

The point can be made more general: surveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon. Inventors build on the work of those who came before, and new ideas are often "in the air," or result from changes in market demand or the availability of new or cheaper starting materials. And in the few circumstances where that is not true – where inventions truly are "singletons" – it is often because of an accident or error in the experiment rather than a conscious effort to invent.

In spite of Lemley's explicit reference to "bamboo" in the abstract of his law review, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette wrote:

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.

As we have noted, Edison's famous US Patent No. No. 223,898, granted January 27, 1880, does not mention "bamboo." This is not irrelevant. Even at the time of patent issue (Jan. 1880), Edison's team had not even tested the bamboo. The longer bulb lifetimes given by bamboo filaments did not exist at the time of filing or at the time of issue. If "bamboo" were the invention, then Lemley could just as well have said Edison "hadn’t actually gotten the invention to work at the time he filed ". But the idea of Edison was to have a bulb employing high voltage, high resistance, but low current, which Sawyer and Mann had not figured out. This idea was NOT "in the air." Separately, the patent actions taken in the 1880s and 1890s (mentioned in the ezine article) prove that Edison's contemporaries did NOT think Edison was stepping into a vacuum.

Similarly, Langley, and all the competitors of the Wrights, had not figured out a means of three-dimensional control of an aircraft. Langley's Aerodrome had no control, which is one reason his "test" was carried out on a river. The Wrights' idea was not "in the air."

Neither the concept of Edison as to high resistance nor the Wright's three dimensional control represent examples of near-simultaneous invention. Edison was trying to make a device with low current consumption, which thus would be practical for mass production. No one else was. The Wrights were working on three-dimensional control of aircraft; as they pointed out, with enough power, anyone could make a door fly; flying per se was not the issue.

As to Carlson, Lemley writes:

But on balance I don‘t think the photocopier can be counted as either a case of simultaneous invention or of incremental improvement. Carlson did go down a different path, and there is no evidence of simultaneous or near-simultaneous invention. Indeed, Mort notes that ―had Carlson been totally influenced by the state of knowledge in 1938 he might have been inclined to drop the whole idea‖ of electrostatic glass, since the rest of the world seemed focused on the use of crystals.147

[Of the Mort comment, note that Carlson's initial work was on sulfur; as wikipedia states: Carlson's early experiments, conducted in his apartment kitchen, were smoky, smelly, and occasionally explosive. In one set of experiments, he was melting pure crystalline sulfur (a photoconductor) onto a plate of zinc by moving it just so over the flame of his kitchen stove. ]

BUT note the following text in Lemley's "Myth":

History, then, suggests that overwhelmingly, inventions—even so-called pioneering inventions—are actually incremental improvements,often made at roughly the same time by multiple inventors. That doesn‘t mean the inventions I have catalogued here have no value; far from it. Edison, Wright, Bell, and the rest made useful contributions to society. But they did not invent things out of whole cloth.
The few cases that don‘t involve simultaneous work are mostly the result not of deliberate invention, but of accident. The photocopier seems the primary exception to this story, the only case in which a single inventor working alone develops a wholly new product that no one else achieves at roughly the same time.

One suspects that there are other individual inventions, which were not simultaneous. The "invention" of the mouse at Xerox might be one.

In passing, note the following incorrect statement that appears on wikipedia: Photoconductors using organic compounds (like zinc oxide or cadmium sulfide) are electrochemically charged vice-versa to the preceding system in order to exploit their native properties in printing.[


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