By: Gittan Alicia | Contributing AOJ Journalist
With more being discovered about the past, it seems to be a common trend for people to look for who actually invented something first and because of that initial invention, regardless of how well it worked, completely discredit another inventor. We’ve seen this happen with Thomas Edison in several instances, and some have gone as far to discredit Thomas Edison as an inventor because many others have developed similar technology before him. The same has occurred with other inventors and people who have become known as prominent figures in history.
While the publics’ search for truth in regards to who was the first to do anything looks morally sound from a glance, it fails to account for inherent bias and bitterness that goes along with the results. Once the public discovers who the first really was, they go overboard in ensuring this person’s name is known as the true first. In their efforts, the public completely discredits another inventor who often hadn’t the slightest idea that this other person got to his invention first and who often invented a far better version of this invention. In the eyes of the public, they’re ensuring justice, however, in reality, they’re just invalidating the life work of someone who did a better job and likely was unaware that another version of their invention was already in existence. Thus, the public is really doing an injustice.
A prime example where the public discredits an inventor in the name of justice is Thomas Edison and his invention of the lightbulb. In school, students were taught that Thomas was the original inventor of this invention, however, there is now evidence showing that there were previous inventors who already invented this invention, just not quite as successfully. Because of this, the public has gone overboard on ensuring justice. An article on USnews.com promotes that Edison should not be credited on the invention of the light bulb in any way due to his selfish motives, however, the article is based entirely on the speculation and the assumptions of one historian by the name of Ernest Freeburg. Rather than recognize the contribution Edison made to the development of the lightbulb, USnews and Freeburg focus on all the ways Edison could’ve had selfish motives and stole his invention, which is backed up with insufficient evidence and speculation. In other words, USnews got caught up in the justice of who the true inventor is and in doing so began to discredit Edison in every way they could.
Another inventor discredited due to the discovery of other past inventors with similar inventions is Alexander Graham Bell. Before Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray had been working on a sound transmitting device for years, and it is said that on the same day Gray delivered his patent first to be filed and it was left at the bottom of the pile to be filed later, but Bell’s lawyer came later that afternoon and had Bell’s patent filed immediately. Because of this, the public has begun to claim justice by speculating wrong-doings of Bell in an effort to discredit his work and put Elisha Gray’s name in his place. One article goes as far as to claim Bell stole Gray’s work, and while there is plausible evidence one may of stolen work of a liquid transmitter from the other, at the time an examiner took a look at past filings of Bell and deemed that no work had been stolen, as Bell had filed a patent with the same transmitter in the past. That’s not to say Bell did or didn’t steal the work, but with the evidence provided, no certain conclusion can be drawn and only speculations can be made. Furthermore, it’s indisputable that Bell’s work on the telephone was a very impactful contribution to society.
One other case of inventors discredited due to not truly being the first to invent a particular invention is the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers are said to have flown the first airplane and achieved powered flight, however, evidence, that was deemed unsubstantial in the past, revealed that Gustave Whitehead may have been the first to fly a powered aircraft 2 years before the Wright Brothers. A CNN story takes this plausible occurrence further in the name of justice in an article by discrediting the Wright Brothers and their flight. The article states that there may have been a secret agreement between the Wright Brothers and the Smithsonian, which in fact isn’t actually a secret. The article uses the contract signed between the Wright Brothers and the museum, that says should the Smithsonian declare any other aircraft to be the first in flight, the Wright family has the right to take back the airplane, as a means of suggesting the Wright’s knew they may not have been the first. This is a way of discrediting the Wright Brothers for their invention and accomplishment, by creating a sense of uncertainty in the reader’s mind. What is known, is that the Wright Brothers were the first at powered flight that was documented with certainty and their contributions have had a great impact on air travel.
While none of these inventors were necessarily the first to invent their inventions, the public tends to go overboard on the idea that they could have not been the first. They think they’re doing the true inventors and everyone else justice by discrediting the inventor that may not have actually been the first and providing unsubstantial and unverifiable evidence and speculations as a means to discredit these inventors. However, much of society today has been influenced by these inventors works and contributions regardless of whether they were the first to invent something or not. What matters less is who was the first to invent or come up with something, but rather who implemented or enhanced an invention enough that it became useful and then helped make it become widespread in society. Because that’s how an invention truly becomes of use and importance to society. With that in mind, it’s also important to note that just because inventors made great contributions to society and should be given credit for such, doesn’t necessarily mean they were great people, as all people are only human.
- Patterson, T. (2013, June 7). Were the Wright brothers really first? Photo sparks flight fight. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/wright-brothers-first-flight-fight/index.html
- Kuroski, J. (2016, March 7). 6 World-Changing Inventions You’ve Been Crediting To The Wrong Person. Retrieved August 29, 2019, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/famous-inventors
- Berger, B. (2013, March 21). Many Minds Produced The Light That Illuminated America. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2013/03/21/why-thomas-edison-isnt-the-inventor-of-the-light-bulb