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The Myth of the Lone Inventor

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When we imagine the creation of an object, be it a light bulb or an iPad, we typically imagine a sole inventor, toiling away in a room to build it. But according to Matt Novak, writer of the BBC’s Paleofuturist column and Smithsonian’s Paleofuture blog, the concept of the lone inventor is a myth—and a dangerous one, at that. “We romanticize the idea of a nerdy, bespectacled guy in seclusion, hammering out a problem that others have yet to crack. And often as is the case, it’s not that simple,” Novak said at his panel, Edison vs. Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Inventor, which took place at SXSW on Monday. “What starts as an idea for a product or a service or an institution is dependent upon thousands of forces, seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized, historical and contemporary, which will determine if it becomes a reality.”

Invention, Novak said, is often a collaborative process; sometimes (probably more often than you'd think) one idea is conceived by separate people simultaneously. “This simplistic understanding of invention—the lone inventor—does a great disservice to the men and women who helped create the world we live in today,” Novak said, “and an even greater disservice to the people here in the 21st century developing the exciting new technologies of tomorrow.”

Tesla Vs. Edison

Novak pointed to two very famous inventors and rivals, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, as examples of how the lone inventor myth can spin out of control. “The Edison vs. Tesla story hangs its hat on a very Ayn Rand view of the world, that two men and two men alone, beholden to no one, thrust humanity into the modern electrical age,” Novak said. The mythology surrounding Edison, for example, is that he didn’t invent anything he’s credited with inventing in the history books, including the light bulb, which 22 other people invented before Edison made improvements and figured out how to market the device. “This is partially true,” Novak said. “But it does nothing to take away anything from Edison’s improvements or that of his massive staff.”

The mythology surrounding Tesla, meanwhile, claims that he invented “virtually everything of importance at the dawn of the 20th century, and has true claim to inventing everything first,” Novak said. But that view overlooks the fact that Tesla was not the only person working to develop things like AC technology. Around the same time Tesla was working on his system, in the mid-1880s, an Italian inventor named Galileo Ferraris developed a similar technology, Novak said. Some inventors in Germany are often credited with creating the first three-phase AC system, and other inventors would also contribute to alternating current technologies. "The list," Novak said, "goes on and on."

What differentiates Tesla from at least Ferraris, according to Novak, is that the Italian inventor didn’t see the commercial potential of alternating current. “He thought what he was creating was a mere toy,” Novak said. “Tesla’s development of AC is undoubtedly important for the development of our modern electrical world. … Tesla had a very forward-thinking vision for what his technology could mean for the world, but he was not alone in developing it.” (A number of the myths surrounding Tesla were created by John Jay O’Neill's Prodigal Genius: the Life of Nikola Tesla, published a year after Tesla's death—at which point he was not penniless, by the way.)

The Parents of Invention

Edison’s light bulb and Tesla’s AC system aren’t the only examples of the development of inventions by many. According to Novak, the Apple vs. Samsung tablet and smartphone lawsuit gave us “a unique opportunity to see a little bit behind the screen. And guess what? It was an extremely complex mix of authors and ideas, everyone taking from everyone else. Sometimes people were inspired by contemporaries, other times, by historical examples, but no single person contributing to these technologies was inventing in a vacuum.”

We run into the same problem with the internet. “Some people will tell you that Vince Cerf’s work on TCP/IP was the real birth of the Internet; others will go back further in history and tell you that Leonard Kleinrock’s work on queueing theory was the birth of the Internet,” Novak said. But in the mid-1960s, people in Russia and France had an idea for the kind of network that would become ARCNet, the precursor to the modern internet. So why weren't they the first to invent the internet? "These people did not have the institutional backing. They didn’t have their DARPA or their Westinghouse,” Novak said. “We all like to imagine that the lone inventor exists outside the cultural and institutional forces that facilitate innovation. If people would simply try harder, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, get better ideas, they could change the world. But history, like innovation itself, is messy.”

Years down the road, we might also be having this kind of conversation about driverless cars. Though Google is the big name in the technology right now, work was being done on self-driving cars by DARPA all the way back in the mid-1980s. After that, Novak said, companies both public and private continued to work on understanding the technology through the 1990s. “In 1997, the program had to show its technical feasibility demonstration in San Diego and on July 22nd of that year, the demonstration test vehicles rode down 7 miles of the HOV lane on I-15,” Novak said. “The Associated Press reported, 'The prototype highway should be running by 2002.' This fully automated highway was obviously never built, but it contributed to our understanding of what could be. All this work was done long before Google appeared on the scene.”

The problem with the myth

Why, then, do we love the myth of the lone inventor, even as we embrace the wisdom of the crowd through sites like Wikipedia and Kickstarter? “I think we’re drawn to the myth of the lone inventor, as well as the Great Man version of history, because it feeds the image of the rock star inventor,” Novak said. “[It’s] really good at selling t-shirts, [and] a really good five-minute story squeezed in between TV ads. But it’s a poor understanding of history.”

In fact, this inaccurate view of history has consequences that concern Novak. “The people who directly benefit from the perpetuation of something like the Great Men theory of history are the very people who wish to see the world as one in which they owe nothing back to the society that created them,” he said. “These people tend to vastly overestimate their contributions while dismissing the work of others, or their own privilege without much thought. Now, the celebration of rock stars is a fundamental part of our culture—but when it ceases to become simply entertainment, and instead impacts the decisions we make as a society, we have a problem on our hands. The lone inventor myth truly impacts the way we view what is owed to society. Today, as much as ever, we have the tools to build a better future. Let’s do the future a favor, and let’s finally kill the myth of the lone inventor.”

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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