Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Inventions: A Simple Question, With Complex Answers

Today, I went to a facinating and charming event. One part of the event involved a Gospel chior. I was incredibly impressed at the sheer volume of air moved by these chorestors. They were very good indeed.

In another part of the event, a gentleman did a presentation, based on a rather excellent story. The story was about a child called Alex and was entitled "Where Would We Be Without Black People???". The story is cute, in so much as it highlights all the things that we use everyday, that were originally invented by African-Americans.

When I was first looking for the text of this tale, it seemed to only be available in book form. I was only able to find the correct link when I adjusted the search terms. While I was trying to get the search correct, I was a little shocked to see the number of links that refered to racist jokes.

Before I managed to hit on the correct selection of search terms, I also ran across some quite interesting links about African-American inventors. A short list of inventors can be found here. A longer list can be found here, and a very long list can be found here.

All this was pretty cool, until I ran across the fifth link that Google pulled up. It was called "Black Invention Myths". My question is, why would anyone ever bother to put up such a page? For goodness sake!

The sad part about this silly page is that it is not really making a terribly original point. It is a well known phenomenon that the people who receive credit for certain inventions are frequently not really the people who are responsible for them. For instance, Edison is credited with developing the first light bulb. However, what people forget is that Edison had a small army of assistants who did a great deal of the leg work. Strangely enough, Edison is seldom given credit for the term 'Hello', which some say he sort of 'invented', or at least, he was the first person to use, at least with the e spelling, back in 1887.

Although Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited as the inventor of the telephone, this is not the entire story. One Antonio Meucci demonstrated his teletrofono in 1871. He even filed a caveat, a type of stopgap patent, that year. Unfortunately, he failed to send the $10, to keep this current. Thus, when Bell's patent was registered in 1876, he got the glory. [N.B. The facts on this matter are a little more complicated than I indicate here. Please see the comment by Donna, below. - The CP]

There are also questions of priority. For instance, both Newton and Leibniz invented calculus at roughly the same time. Who did it first? Nobody really knows.

The discovery of penicillin is another similarly complex story. North African tribes have made a healing ointment, from the mould found on animal harnesses for thousands of years. A French Physician, Ernest Duchesne, observed similar practices of Arab stable boys in 1987. He did detailed research on the mold and identified it as Penicillium glaucum. He sent the research to the Institut Pasteur, suggesting further study, but they did not even acknowledge reciept. Sir Alexander Fleming coined the term 'penicillin' in 1929, work for which he eventually was to recieve one third of a Noble Prize in 1945. Fleming shared the prize with Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey.

The main point here though is that invention is not a simple process. Thus, the question "Who invented X?" is almost always going to give rise to to a myriad of complex and often contentious answers, that are always going to be subject to doubt. A simple question, but with many complex answers.

The CP


Anonymous Donna said...

Just to clarify things a little -

Antonio Meucci's telephone was an acoustic, mechanical telephone (sort of a glorified tin can telephone) NOT an electrical telephone. Had he maintained his caveat it would have had no bearing on Bell's patent. It did not describe any elements of an electrical telephone and could never have been used as a commercial telephone.

Below are excerpts from the complete text of the ruling in the Antonio Meucci case.

From 31 Federal Reporter 728-735

American Bell Telephone Co. v. Globe Telephone Co. and others [including Antonio Meucci]

Circuit Court, S. D. New York. July 19, 1887

"The experiments and invention of one Antonio Meucci, relating to the transmission of speech by an electrical apparatus, for which invention a caveat was filed in the United States patent‑office, December 28,1871, renewed in December, 1882, and again in December, 1883, do not contain any such elements of an electric speaking telephone as would give the same priority over or interfere with the said Bell patent."...
"It is idle to contend that an inventor having such conceptions could at that time have been the inventor of the Bell telephone. The application does, however, describe a mechanical telephone, consisting of a. mouth-piece and ear-piece connected by a wire. A letter written by Mr. Stetson of the date of January 13, 1872, is in evidence, and is important as confirmatory of the conclusion that beyond this the invention was only inchoate. This letter was written to Meucci when the latter was in communication with Mr. Stetson in reference to obtaining a patent for the invention. In this letter, Mr. Stetson, in substance, advised Meucci that his invention was not in a condition; telling him that it was “an idea giving promise of usefulness,” and the proper subject of a caveat, but requiring many experiments to prove the reality of the invention." ...

"Without adverting to other evidence tending to indicate that Meucci was merely an experimentalist who had not produced anything new in the art of transmitting speech by electricity, it suffices to say that his pretensions are overthrown by his own description of the invention at a time when he deemed it in a condition to patent, and by the evidence of Mr. Stetson. The evidence leaves the impression that his speaking telegraph would never have been offered to the public as an invention if he had not been led by his necessities to trade on the credulity of his friends; that he intended to induce the three persons of small means and little business experience, who became his associates under the agreement of December 12, 1871, to invest in an invention which he would not office to men like Ryder and Craig; and that this was done in the hope of obtaining such loans and assistance from them as he would temporarily require."

"A decree is ordered for the complainant." [i.e. Alexander Graham Bell]

Thanks for your time. Hope this clears things up for you!

Donna Johnson

10:22 AM  

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