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.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Dec 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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