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
    Shun, 27 Dec 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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