SXSW: 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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March 13, 2013 - 5:00pm
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