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No. 356:

Today, we look for the real source of invention. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When I tell people that Morse and Marconi didn't invent the telegraph and the radio, they ask, "Then who did?" Actually, many people did, and nobody did. And that does little to satisfy our primal craving to identify somebody as first.

No complex technology is invented by one person. Worse yet, seminal ideas almost always come from people who fail to make them work the way they should.

Look at the light bulb. In 1802 the great electro-chemist Sir Humphry Davy showed he could cast light by passing electricity through a platinum strip. You'd hardly call that a light bulb. Yet it was close. Later Davy imposed a large voltage across the air gap between two carbon electrodes. He created a primitive arc lamp. As a result, England had commercial arc lights long before Edison.

In 1820 de la Rue made an incandescent light in France. He wound a platinum coil in an evacuated glass tube. Twenty years later, a London theatre was lit with such lamps. They were hopelessly inefficient, but they did cast light.

Joseph Swan made a carbon-filament light bulb in 1878 -- three years before Edison did. Edison finally made his own bulb and an electric supply system. But then he had to take Swan into partnership to get around Swan's patent.

So who invented the light bulb! The answer is that it represented a huge outpouring of human ingenuity. It is a technology with many heroes. The first electric light wasn't a workable bulb at all. If, on the other hand, you credit Edison, you honor success, not the primacy of ideas. And success reflects genius of an entirely different order.

When you search backward, looking for the first anything, you find only false starts, anonymity, and failure. John Fitch ran the first American steamboat line in 1790. But his business failed, and he eventually committed suicide. Before Fitch, the Marquis du Jouffroy made a steamboat, but the French wouldn't license him to run it. Then the Revolutionary government drove him out of France. And all that was long before Fulton.

The first-inventor myth gets in the way of invention. The real heroes aren't the great successes -- Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford. The people we must learn to honor are the anonymous failures who've planted the seed and let others pick the fruit. We need ways to encourage people who fail ten times before they succeed once. We must find ways to honor embryonic ingenuity -- because the things we create are always alien, imperfect, and seemingly irrelevant in their origins.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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