Why we know certain inventors, and not others?

For some history changing inventions, the inventor is well known: Samuel Morse for the telegraph, Alexander Bell for the telephone, the Wright Brothers for the airplane. But for inventions like radio, TV, or the computer, their inventors are not well known–and exactly who did invent them is still highly disputed. Why are certain inventors well known and not others? Is it dependent on the invention itself, or are other factors involved?

Do the names Guglielmo Marconi, Philo Farnsworth, and Charles Babbage mean anything to you?

Radio, television, difference engine.

How about the name Ada Lovelace?

I think part of it is that some inventions have a good origin story. In the US, most of us heard the story of Bell saying, “Watson, come here. I need to see you.” into the prototype phone. And we’ve heard about the Wright Brothers’ first flight in North Carolina. Perhaps other inventions don’t have such a simple story, or their invention was such a series of steps that there’s no clear origin?

Depends what you call an invention as well. Complex questions do not have single inventions. For instance the Wright brothers are not correctly identified as the inventors of the airplane. They are credited with the first powered flight, and they had a number of important inventions (they they patented and pursued the IP on) relevant to airplanes. But there were many others working in the field, and many countries (especially the French) were right up there. If the Wright Brothers had not existed, flight as we know it would have existed just fine, maybe a year or so later.

Much the same can be said of computers. Babbage designed a mechanical computer that was never built. During WW2 significant strides were made technically, famously with things like Colossus (Tommy Flowers) and almost unknown to anyone Conrad Zuse, was way ahead of the game. But he was working in Germany, and his extraordinary work doesn’t make for nearly as good a story. Early computing history has a number of truly great figures, but there is no inventor of the computer. Perhaps a couple of dozen giants that drove early work. Their names are familiar to many in the field, but there is no simple story to tell schoolchildren.

Invention of the first TV is generally credited to John Logie Baird. The British know his name well. In Australia the annual TV awards are called the Logies. But that was a limited mechanical system. Modern TV as we know it derived from a range of technologies, and the wartime work done on radar was critical to boost it along.

Claiming “invention” of modern things is very difficult, simply because any complex system has many many contributors. You get ridiculous things like claiming that A C Clarke invented the communications satellite because he was the first to publish the idea of using geosynchronous orbit. Early comsats didn’t even use that orbit. Some like to call geosynchronous orbit the Clarke orbit, to honour his contribution, but calling the satellites his invention is silly.

I think Marconi is pretty well known. If he’s not as well known as Morse and Bell in the US, it’s because he wasn’t an American.

I think that TV and the computer were such incremental developments that it’s difficult to select a single individual as the inventor.

The Wright Brothers might be credited as “inventing” the airplane, but that’s because they made what is now considered the first successful flight. At the time it was controversial.

many things were quite complex.

for radio there also was:

John Fleming for the diode electron tube.

Lee de Forest for the triode electron tube.

Edwin Howard Armstrong for the regenerative circuit, super-regenerative circuit, superheterodyne receiver and frequency modulation (FM) radio.

there were principles, components, circuits that all had to come together.

Many things do not have a heroic origin myth. We remember the people who made for good stories, whether those stories are factual or not.

For many of the things that you think you know the single inventor of, it turns out that they were actually invented by someone else or that they were invented simultaneously by several people or that someone claimed all the credit despite having only a minor role (and sometimes no role at all) in the invention. People love good stories. The idea that a lone inventor created something well known is a good story in most people’s eyes, even though that’s seldom how things really happened. You should always be dubious about any claim that someone by themselves created something huge. You should distrust this idea in movies, for instance. The current movie The Imitation Game attributes many things to Alan Turing that he had nothing to do with.

History books used to deliberately tout invention as a story, of heroic individuals with brilliant minds overcoming odds to success. That was a style, one found in almost country’s self-glorifying psyche.

That style is mostly gone. You’ll notice that the Wright Brothers are about the last inventors singled out that way. Invention hasn’t changed all that much; we see more corporations and groups than single inventors but that’s only part of the story. Fulton did not invent the steamboat; Watt did not invent the steam engine. They were part of a long line of inventors who made incremental improvements. The only reason they were singled out was that it once was fashionable to create teachable stories for youth out of these complicated histories. Much the same process is found in Parson Weems’ biography of Washington, inventing myths like the cherry tree.

We normally think history is a thing, fixed and understood. Instead it’s fluid and malleable, subject to distortion and propaganda, biased with present day attitudes, and dependent on the pervasive human instinct to create patterns out of data, even if sometimes the data is random. It should be approached with caution but never ignored.

This is highly dubious.

There actually are at least semi-valid claims that others achieved powered flight before the Wrights. But the Wrights were indisputably far ahead in the area of controlled flight, which the perspective of 100+ years shows was the essential step toward actual progress in aviation.

Others were certainly working on manned flight at the same time, but it’s notable how pitiful were their efforts toward proper 3-aris control, which the Wrights figured out in 1902 and which has been integral to 99.8% of successful heavier-than-air aviation ever since.

Swan and Edison are a good example. They are pretty much both credited with the invention of the electric light bulb, though both claimed it.

Then you get people like George Stephenson who is credited with the first railway engine when he was quite a long way behind. Oftenj the name we all learn in school is the guy with the best publicity team.

The best way for a scientist to get his name remembered is to find a ‘law’, like Boyle Ohm or Murphy.

Slight hijack: What is the most recent invention that DOES have a similarly good and simple origin story?

Well, if you don’t mind good and simple origin stories which are demonstrably false, there’s always Shiva Ayyadurai, “inventor” of e-mail.

MS-DOS was invented by Bill Gates.

No it wasn’t. Bill Gates had nothing to do with it, other than buying it from its original developer and slapping his company’s name on it.

George de Mestral and Velcro? The name doesn’t leap to the tongue, but the “examining burrs stuck to his clothes” story is sorta famous.

There’s also the later story of the 3M engineer who invented Post-It notes, although like the inventor of Velcro, the story is known but not the inventor’s name.

psychonaut writes:

> Well, if you don’t mind good and simple origin stories which are demonstrably
> false, there’s always Shiva Ayyadurai, “inventor” of e-mail.

In punishment for lying, he was forced to marry Fran Drescher.

1974, the Rubik’s Cube?