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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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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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