Saturday, January 15, 2011

Inventors and Inventions

When I was a kid, something called 'general knowledge' was all in the vogue. It consisted of commiting myriad facts and figures to memory which were then parroted out to impress your fellow students. I remember one classmate that memorized the capital cities of all the countries of the world.

So this so called general knowledge had various topics. One of the common ones was 'inventors and inventions'. Given an invention you had to name the inventor and vice versa. Light bulb - Edison, steam engine - James Watt, airplane - Wright Brothers, telephone - Alexander Graham Bell, and so on. Until, of course, it got to the computer. It's hard to define who really made the computer. You could name Babbage and his difference engine but then what about Turing and his hypothetical Turing machine? And what about the fact that computers were made from vacuum tubes until the transistor came along. So which one do we talk about -- the idea, the mechanical, electrical or the electronic computer?

But I digress.

I was totally into science as a kid. I had several books at home about scientists and inventors, narrating stories of how they did a particular peice of science or invention. The story was always about individual effort, hard work and genius. Moral of the story -- if you locked yourself away in your office and were a genius and worked and worked, you'd make a great invention some day.

Despite my earlier lampooning of 'Guns, Germs and Steel', I did find this gem in there.

In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim “X invented Y.” For instance, we are regularly told, “James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,” supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a tea- kettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny that Watt greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a sepa- rate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had greatly improved Savery's.

Similar histories can be related for all modern inventions that are adequately documented. The hero customarily credited with the invention fol- lowed previous inventors who had had similar aims and had already produced designs, working models, or (as in the case of the Newcomen steam engine) commercially successful models. Edison's famous “invention” of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21, 1879, improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inventors between 1841 and 1878. Similarly, the Wright brothers' manned powered airplane was preceded by the manned unpowered gliders of Otto Lilienthal and the unmanned powered airplane of Samuel Langley; Samuel Morse's telegraph was preceded by those of Joseph Henry, William Cooke, and Charles Wheatstone; and Eli Whitney's gin for cleaning short-staple (inland) cotton extended gins that had been cleaning long-staple (Sea Island) cotton for thousands of years. All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugurated commercial success. [...] All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product.

Science is social. Why was this never taught to me as a kid?

1 comment:

  1. "Science is social" - that's a very good point. Good post.