Once Again: The Great Inventors Often Were Neither Great, Nor Inventors

from the revisiting-history dept

For many years, we've tried to argue how important it is to understand the difference between innovation and invention. While it may seem like a minor point of semantics, it actually plays quite heavily into the debate over the patent system. Invention is the process of coming up with something new. Innovation is taking that something new and successfully bringing it to market in a way people want. A quote I've heard a few times sums it up thusly: "Invention is turning money into ideas. Innovation is turning ideas into money." If you look at the true history of major breakthroughs, you'll quickly learn that invention is fairly meaningless -- and the important point is the innovation. In fact, if you look at all the "great inventors" championed by American history, you'll quickly realize that most weren't great inventors at all, but rather innovators, who later (often through questionable means) took credit as the inventors they never were. Even though those who actually are familiar with the history of these products know this already, it's still nice to see these false stories of invention getting more exposure.

Last year, there was a book showing how Thomas Edison wasn't the great inventor he claimed to be. Now, there's a new book suggesting not only was Alexander Graham Bell not the great inventor many hold him up to be, but the famous story of him rushing to the patent office to beat Elisha Gray's patent filing by mere hours may hide the fact that Bell actually cheated the system with the help of a corrupt patent examiner, who shared Gray's filing with Bell and then helped make it appear that Bell's filing came first. While this should raise even more questions about why either man was able to get a patent on an idea that was getting plenty of attention from many sources, and thus should have been considered obvious, it also adds to the list of "great inventors" who really did very little inventing.

The reason this is so important is that a patent system really only makes sense if it's the invention part that's important and that invention is basically the pinnacle of advancement in the space. Instead, if it's innovation that's more important, and innovation is an ongoing process that is sped along by competition, then there is little reason to have a patent system at all. Those who hold up Edison, Bell, the Wright Brothers and others as examples of why the patent system should exist are pointing to the wrong role models. The more detailed you look at their records you realize that both men cheated -- and used the patent system not to help protect "inventions," but to get monopolies that kept out real competition, slowed down true innovation and built up unfair monopolies they didn't deserve.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Shun, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 10:42am

    The meaning of success

    So, from your examples, it appears that in order to be a successful "inventor" (have your name associated with the invention) you must:

    1. Lie -- tell everyone that you made it.
    2. Cheat -- bribe people in the patent office
    3. Steal -- rip-off inventions from the true idea people.

    Also, one must have a massive marketing machine and be a shameless self promoter.

    This sounds like the American Way. Look at any CEO or politician. How did they get there? I've heard it said that "Behind every successful business, there lies a great crime". Say it ain't so! Anyway, the people who point this out, and come out with the "I accomplished this because I was able to stand on the shoulders of giants" line give the game away and are promptly left to rot in obscurity.

    The U.S. Patent system is the "great crime" which runs the engine of U.S. industry, which is increasingly less about real goods, but is more along the lines of the "You will pay me to tell you what you already know" model.

    BTW: I think Gray's idea is much more interesting. Multiple signals on a single wire...is that anything like multiple radio stations on a single frequency? Nah, that's not possible, is it?

     

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      angry dude, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 10:47am

      Re: The meaning of success

      Dude
      AStop reading Mike;s blog Asap befoe it;s too late for you

       

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    •  
      identicon
      Vance, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 11:45am

      Re: The meaning of success

      "Behdind every great fortune there is a crime." Honore de Balzac.

      If you are going to quote someone, please make an effort to get it right.

      That being said, what Balzac said is a particularly European idea, and given how things worked in Europe for centuries, this adage has more than a little truth in it.

      But to say that "any CEO..." under the "American way" is a criminal is, well, not true, useful, or indicative of a strong analytical capacity.

      The constitution protects free speech, religion, etc, but the inclusion of a patent and copyright in the document is a strong indication that the authors believed that original thinkers should be allowed to profit from their ideas. I am of the opinion that you will not profit from yours.

       

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        Jose_X, Jun 19th, 2010 @ 9:58pm

        Promote the progress in a different world

        An exclusive right for a limited time is not another way of saying 20 years of monopoly for things you write down on paper and submit to a government agency. It can mean many things, including much shorter time periods (than 20 years) that get even shorter as better tools come to light (eg, efficient communication, financing, distribution, etc). It can mean allowing legal recourse for monetary damage against the theft of private writings and inventions (eg, putting a dollar value on trade secrets rather than simply upon the actual physical item that was stolen).

        I think the framers could have been thinking of granting some sort of exclusivity protections for a short time for really impressive things at least until society could improve enough to find better tools. They had a weak federal government then and lots of wilderness (in more than just the literal sense). Industry was not nearly as efficient and advanced as it is today (everything took longer to develop) so that monopolies did not have as much of a negative impact. You had many fewer that were educated so there was less chance of conflict and perhaps greater chance of abuse against these few by the wealthy or established. You wanted to encourage people to settle and try to encourage commerce. The idea was to get people to invest to create products.. to take risks experimenting. If anything, you wanted to protect the small from the large, something patent law especially doesn't do today.

        Arguably, exclusive rights could also refer to a level of exclusivity within a limited physical domain (eg, a town), where the author or inventor was most likely to have an immediate impact and to allow that person to be master in at least some locality as a reward for being clever.

        The clause also specifies the criteria of promoting the progress. It doesn't give Congress authority to create exclusivity protections that would not promote progress.

        And the Bill of Rights (Amendments) trump anything about exclusive rights, eg, if they significantly interfere with people's ability to communicate, as is the case for software and business method patents, for example, and to a lesser degree the general case of people building and selling or sharing things with their audience.

         

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    angry dude, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 10:44am

    Mike's going ridiculous

    Shut up Masnick

    You don;'t know what you are talking sbout

    Your shitty blog is a disgrace to the internet

    Go find real job dude

     

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      Alfred E. Neuman, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 11:29am

      Re: Mike's going ridiculous

      Interesting use of a semicolon.
      In addition, I'm not familiar with the term "sbout".
      Care to elaborate?

       

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      Chronno S. Trigger, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 12:07pm

      Re: Mike's going ridiculous

      As a reasonable adult you have two choices

      1) you can counter Mike and give examples and points to illustrate why he is wrong

      or

      2) go somewhere else.

      At this point I would prefer the latter.


      By the way, Bell was a cheat? Is anyone in the history books as good as the books make them out to be?

       

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    angry dude, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 10:49am

    RETARDS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    bullshit

    complete bullshit

     

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    TKM, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 11:28am

    angry dude

    With near-unintelligible banter like that, you only make yourself look bad. Wouldn't your time be better spent trolling Counter Strike forums?

    To Mike: I enjoy your updates on patent/copywrite reform. Keep up the good work.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 9:12pm

      Re: angry dude

      I think angry dude may actually be an anti-IP troll trying to make the pro-IP crowd look bad by association. However, as with an actor that "over-acts", he over does it so much that he's almost unbelievable.

       

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        angry dude, Dec 28th, 2007 @ 7:11am

        Re: Re: angry dude

        Drop dead, moron

        There is too much lying on this blog
        Doesnt matter if youre pro-IP or anti-IP as long as you are an honest dude
        Honest dude speaks his beliefs and lives in a shack
        I respect honest anti-IP dudes even if they re crazy dudes like RMS
        Mike's not honest dude - he makes money by falsifying things
        I will have my own blog soon, call it "techmoron", where I will repost the most ridiculous writings by Mike and other dishonest folks accompanied by my comments
        Lets see if Mikey sues me - according to his writings he shoudn;t , he is againsts copyrights after all..
        Lets test his beliefs...

         

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          Mike (profile), Dec 28th, 2007 @ 12:23pm

          Re: Re: Re: angry dude

          There is too much lying on this blog

          So far, despite my asking multiple times, you have failed to point out a single "lie" from me.

          In fact, the only person caught lying has been you. You lied about having a patent. You lied by saying that I work in PR, despite knowing that's not true. And you lied by claiming that Techdirt makes money for advocating its position on patents when you also know that's not true.

          Mike's not honest dude - he makes money by falsifying things

          And here you are lying again. Please explain how I make money by falsifying things. First explain what I have "falsified." I've asked you in the past and you have been unable to provide a single example.

          Second explain how I could possibly make money from falsifying. My business credibility would be destroyed if I was deliberately falsifying things, so there's no way I would do that.

          I will have my own blog soon, call it "techmoron", where I will repost the most ridiculous writings by Mike and other dishonest folks accompanied by my comments

          That would be great if your comments had any value. So far, we have yet to see any that add any particular value. You claim to know so much, yet you fail to ever say anything of value.

          You have failed, repeatedly, to explain your previous lies.

          You have failed, repeatedly, to stop lying about me even when called on it.

          Lets see if Mikey sues me - according to his writings he shoudn;t , he is againsts copyrights after all..
          Lets test his beliefs...


          There are plenty of sites that repost Techdirt content, and we have never done anything about them. Please, go ahead. If you're successful, it only gives us more credibility (while destroying yours).

           

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            Jose_X, Jun 19th, 2010 @ 10:46pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: angry dude

            And let's not forget that copyright and patent law are distinct to facts.

            Taking a work and claiming you created it without help or changing it to negatively affect the author can be dealt with in the law separately from copyrights and patents.

            A third party wanting to contract the original author or get their endorsement (or get private lessons, an opinion, or an analysis) will usually not take kindly to misrepresentation by an imitator.

             

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    David, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 12:13pm

    History is rife with those who have taken credit f

    Both Bell's adaptation to use Grey's idea for voice and Grey's multiplexing ideas are benefits to society.

    Multiplexing is important to bandwidth limitations in electronic communications.

    But statements in the article that innovation is more important than invention is short sighted and leans to consideration of the economics point of view only.

    The correct answer is always balance.

    Invention may not directly drive the economy, but without invention, there would not be any ideas to innovate and bring to market fruition.

    As an engineer with a certain amount economics training, I can say that engineering is mostly innovation with some aspects of invention. Engineering is applied science verses pure science where fundamental research occurs. Engineering typically solves the economic prolems that pure science does not.

    A pure scientist focuses more on invention, of new ideas, methods, and knowledge but even pure research is done so that someone can ultimately make something useful from it. So back to the engineers, but without the fundamental research we would have nothing to work with.

    Both invention and innovation are equally important. One can not exist without the other: no inventions, nothing to innovate, no innovation, no ideas turned to usefulness.

    The problem with patents, copyright, and intellectual property is more fundamental, it is an unfortunate fact of human nature that people always look to minimize effort and maximize benefit.

    This human desire has driven invention and innovation, but it also leads to abuse of intellectual property rights. Many new ideas are based in the notion that there must be a better way, an easier way to do something. But once an invention/innovation brings economic benefit, the creator now wants it protected. The same desire to minimize effort that drove creation, now strives to protect benefits from the creation so as not to have to expend any more effort, to have to create anew to continue reaping economic benefits.

    This is true in the sciences as well as the arts and humanities. Write a best seller, make a blockbuster movie, or write a hit song, these people, like all people, would like the income in perpetuity so they never have to struggle again.

    Human nature leads to all sorts of schemes to protect economic benefit; one method is then abuse of the system of intellectual property. Here creators of IP take a hypocritical stance. Creators of IP want protection against ‘theft’ of IP as if it were physical property. But unlike physical property, IP creators want perpetual income from the sale of IP with out having to create anew, while those who sell physical products always have to make a new product to sell to continue to generate income.

    The original intent of all forms of IP was correct: allow people who produce intangibles to be able to make a living, but limit the term so that they have to go out and continue to work and not just rest on indefinitely protected laurels. Creators must continue to create just as producers of tangible products have to continue to make more products to sell for continued economic benefit.

     

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      Mike (profile), Dec 27th, 2007 @ 12:19pm

      Re: History is rife with those who have taken cred

      Hi David,

      This is a good post, and I agree with some of what you have to say, but I have a problem with the implication of this statement:

      "Both invention and innovation are equally important. One can not exist without the other: no inventions, nothing to innovate, no innovation, no ideas turned to usefulness."

      That implies that what I said is that inventions don't matter, which I never said. It also implies that without IP protection there would be no invention, which is simply false.

      IP systems are designed to give extra incentives for the production of new information goods, but if those incentives are not needed, then they only serve to distort the market.

      As for your claim of "balance," I also disagree. Back when protectionism was more common people argued for "balance" but when you understand the economics, you recognize that there is no "balance" when it comes to protectionism -- and that almost all protectionism will damage markets.

       

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        David, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 1:39pm

        Re: Re: History is rife with those who have taken

        Sorry, I apologize if I mistook your meaning.

        While this particular post did not discuss the relative importance of invention vs. innovation, the following post that is linked within this one does seem to make such an assertion:

        Innovation Is More Important Than Invention

        "So, the real question then, is whether or not our intellectual property system should be encouraging invention or innovation? I'd vote for innovation, as that's what drives the economy, and that would suggest we need fewer lawyers involved with the patent system, and perhaps more innovators. The following point is also important: "the technical excellence of an invention matters far less than the economic willingness of the customer or client to explore it." In other words, any system designed to encourage innovation needs to encourage actually making use of the innovation - and not, for example, sitting on a patent and doing nothing with it, while waiting for others to innovate and then hitting them with a patent infringement lawsuit."

        While much of that post contains quotation, I believe the majority of the statements above were original to that post. The argument seems to be one sided in that because innovation directly drives the economy, it outweighs invention. But it does not account for the fact that invention drives innovation; that is without all sorts of interference from IP laws and lawyers.

        I am simply referring to relative the importance and interrelation of both invention and innovation, as defined here.

        I also am not suggesting that the lack of IP laws would stifle creation. I do not believe that my quoted statement implies that at all, it only stresses the interdependence. Interpreting the statement as suggested is an extrapolation based on an incorrect association to other sections of my post.

        As to balance, what I referred to here is not related to the particular balance argument commonly used for patents and other IP. I do refer to balance in common usage only as a moderate point of view that attempts to consider all things.

        I do know enough about economics to know that government interference really only leads to market distortion in one form or another, be it taxation, government subsidies, tariffs, welfare, or IP.

        The patent office is full of innovation masquerading as invention; loads of patens based on obvious extensions of existing ideas, and the patents are often awarded despite this.

        The lawyers don't really care which is which as long as it is billable.

        We need fewer lawyers involved who stifle creativity and make their money by encouraging legal confrontation over fictitious property.

        But the whole Bell/Grey debate is a debate based on the concept of IP theft. I have not personally come to a definitive conclusion yet as to whether there should be any sort of IP or not, but I clearly see the abuse that occurs and I definetly lean to substantial reduction of the current restrictions.

        The main point was really that the original, limited intent of IP, as instituted when this country was young, was better than what it has become with people that have used weaknesses in the IP system and government to exacerbate the market distortion to their own ends.

        I hope this clears up some of my meaning as I find I typically agree with far more of what you say than I disagree with.

         

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      EGR, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 8:46pm

      Re: History is rife with those who have taken cred

      As an engineer with a certain amount [of] economics training,...
      Likewise.
      ...I can say that engineering is mostly innovation with some aspects of invention. Engineering is applied science verses pure science where fundamental research occurs.
      I would almost agree except I would say that the practice of engineering is applied science and may include innovation and invention. There is plenty of engineering work that involves neither but is still engineering.

       

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        David, Dec 28th, 2007 @ 6:52am

        Re: Re: History is rife with those who have taken

        I do not know what kind of engineering work you do, but I find that I am constantly asked to apply known scientific and engineering principles to solve new problems.

        In finding new ways to solve problems based on what is already known, by the definition that is used in this article, this is innovation.

        http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/innovation.html

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2007 @ 12:12pm

          Re: Re: Re: History is rife with those who have ta

          I do not know what kind of engineering work you do, but I find that I am constantly asked to apply known scientific and engineering principles to solve new problems.
          Well, most of my career has been spent designing things for military applications (although I've also done commercial stuff) and I've probably invented more new stuff than most engineers. But I am not so myopic (or arrogant) to believe that all true engineering work is like mine or to denigrate those engineers working in other fields (e.g. forensics and many others) by suggesting that their work isn't also engineering. I'm shocked that as an engineer you would be so unaware of how varied the field is and that you would attempt to define the entire profession in the narrow view of your own personal experience.

          In finding new ways to solve problems based on what is already known, by the definition that is used in this article, this is innovation.
          Being innovative does not make one an engineer (in the professional sense) and engineering does not require innovation. They are not one and the same. To say that they are would be like saying that one isn't really a doctor unless they are coming up with new treatments for new diseases. Quite a few doctors would be insulted by that.

           

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      Jonathan, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 9:45pm

      Re: History is rife with those who have taken cred

      A pure scientist focuses more on invention

      Nope. Pure science investigates what is. Engineering creates what has not not been.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2007 @ 7:10am

        Re: Re: History is rife with those who have taken

        True, but pure science in the act of investigation of what is must make discovery, new ideas are part of that investigation.

        My use of the word here related to pure science is not necessarily the physical object as invented (definition 2 below), but rather the discovery involved with original research (definition 6 below):

        The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000

        invention

        NOUN: 1. The act or process of inventing: used a technique of her own invention. 2. A new device, method, or process developed from study and experimentation: the phonograph, an invention attributed to Thomas Edison. 3. A mental fabrication, especially a falsehood. 4. Skill in inventing; inventiveness: “the invention and sweep of the staging” (John Simon). 5. Music A short composition developing a single theme contrapuntally. 6. A discovery; a finding.

        Source: http://www.bartleby.com/61/39/I0213900.html

        Also, note the irony here that Thomas Edison is attributed a disputed invention (definition 2), as we discuss other bogus inventors, that he did not originate, but rather adapted.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2007 @ 12:21pm

          Re: Re: Re: History is rife with those who have ta

          6. A discovery; a finding.

          That's a pretty loose definition of "invention". If I "discover" or "find" dog crap on the bottom of my shoe does that make me an inventor? Apparently so according to you and The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

           

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    Larry Gardner, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 1:26pm

    Additions to your list

     

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    Larry Gardner, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 1:34pm

    Additions to the List

    You might also consider including Marconi, who used Nikola Tesla's patents to develop wireless telegraph (radio) at least two years after Tesla had demonstrated it. Tesla was somewhat vindicated when the Marconi patent for radio communications was overturned and awarded to Tesla in 1941. Tesla was also the first to demonstrate x-rays, at least two years before Roentgen. In fact, Tesla sent Roentgen an x-ray of his own foot before Roentgen had been successful in x-ray photography.

    In another development, Alexander Fleming claimed to discover the antibiotic powers of penicillin in 1928 when in fact, those properties were discovered by Theodor Billroth forty years earlier.

    Shockley et al at Bell Laboratories are credited with inventing the transistor in 1947, but it was demonstrated by Lillianfeld in 1928.

    So, the real inventors are often not given credit, but the innovators usually are.

     

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    Matt, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 1:49pm

    TECH PATENTS

    Seems we need some new laws creating a special class of "technology patents." Due to the rapid, rapid pace of innovation in the field patent life should be shorter. Take the jpeg image (minus obvious prior art) patent. Sure that may have been cutting edge when I was five and going to the coffee shop to check out pepsi.com on their Apple computer w/ 14.4 AOL dialup. Just a thought.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 9:33pm

      Re: TECH PATENTS

      Seems we need some new laws creating a special class of "technology patents." Disagree. It seems to me that we need fewer IP laws, not more.

       

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    Wolf, Dec 27th, 2007 @ 3:35pm

    Let's not forget one of the greatest inventors of the 19th century, Nikola Tesla. He gave us a number of inventions, and died penniless for his troubles, while his "good friend" George Westinghouse became a multi-millionaire with Tesla's generators and AC delivery methods.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2009 @ 4:44pm

    how did he die?

     

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    Neil Farbstein, Jun 23rd, 2010 @ 4:59pm

    Great inventors

    Edison's big idea was the research and development laboratory itself where he took others half completed projects like electric light bulbs and perfected them. He knew that he could get fill ments that met his requirements if he put his nose to the grindstone. He had a 4th grade education no IVY league background. I'm convinced alexander graham bell stole the telephone from Elisha grey. There was no recording equipment to record the plot but the stories are convincing.

     

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    Stephan Kinsella (profile), Jan 26th, 2011 @ 10:11am

    Fantastice post; two caveats

    Great post, as usual.

    I am not sure how it helped Bell to "get to the office first"--we have a first-to-invent system in the US unlike the first-to-file system in other countries. (and your link is broken so I could not followup easily)

    And it's wrong that simultaneous filing/invention would prove obviousness. Obviousness is an artificial legal standard that takes into account only what is officially considered "prior art"--if the earlier filed patent application was not public, then it's not prior art yet for purposes of obviousness. Of course I agree with you as a logical or substnative matter, but the law is an ass, especially when it consists of decreed legislation.

     

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