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
    David, 27 Dec 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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