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Eric Hintz, 2007 Lemelson Center Fellow

Let's conduct a hypothetical experiment. Suppose you were to stop the average person on the street and ask, "Who invented the telephone?" Most would answer "Alexander Graham Bell." Now, ask that same person about a more modern invention. Who invented the photocopier? Chances are that person would name a company like Xerox or Canon, and not an individual. What does this scenario suggest about the changing nature of invention and its cultural implications? Why have inventors--once revered as heroes--become "invisible" while corporate brands have become increasingly associated with high-tech innovation?

In the 19th century, American inventor-entrepreneurs built eponymous companies to market their inventions and became famous as those inventions were widely adopted. Accordingly, the names of inventors like Singer (sewing machine), McCormick (mechanical reaper), Colt (revolver), Bell (telephone), and Edison (incandescent lighting) became synonymous with their inventions. These men were more than inventors--they were brands.

However, the emergence of the modern corporation in the late 19th century initiated many changes for inventors and contributed to their obscurity. As firms grew larger, they often found it more advantageous to merge with one another rather than engage in ruinous competition. Often the new conglomerates adopted generic names, removing their inventor-founders names in the process. Even the most famous inventors were affected. For example, in 1892 inventors Elihu Thomson, Edwin Houston, and Thomas Edison saw their names wiped out when the Thomson-Houston Company and Edison General Electric Company merged to form General Electric.

Meanwhile, the locus of invention began to shift increasingly from individuals to corporations. Many of the largest high-tech firms of the late 1800s had been founded on the discoveries of individual inventors, including Bell's AT&T and the aforementioned General Electric. With their basic patents set to expire, though, these firms embarked on a strategy of continuous innovation to stay ahead of competitors. These highly capitalized firms were no longer willing to bet their fortunes on the unpredictable "Eureka!" moments of idiosyncratic, individual inventors. Instead, firms needed a more predictable form of innovation, one that could be managed and aligned with corporate prerogatives.

Accordingly, GE and AT&T became pioneers in industrial research, setting up two of the first corporate R&D labs shortly after 1900. In these labs, teams of salaried scientists and technicians worked on specific problems chosen by a research director, with ownership of any resulting inventions assigned to the firm. In the process, corporate invention became routine … and largely anonymous. This shift was also reflected in advertising and branding; now "DuPont" was the inventor of nylon, "Bell Labs" the creator of transistors. Today, firms like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony are granted over one thousand patents a year, yet the average person could not name the individuals responsible for any given innovation. 

However, there is some (very anecdotal) evidence that the individual is making a comeback in visibility, especially in the world of internet start-ups. For example, nearly all of the college students in my technology seminar could name Mark Zuckerberg, the principal individual behind the wildly popular social networking site, Facebook. Zuckerberg has recently been featured on the covers of Fortune, Time, and Newsweek, as well as Oprah Winfrey's television show. Though the firm does not bear Zuckerberg's name, much of Facebook's brand identity is built around the visibility and Q rating of its precocious, 25-year-old founder. Much like Singer, Colt, and McCormick from the 19th century, Zuckerberg is well-known and visible because he is not just an innovator, but a kind of brand, the face of Facebook.

This August is National Inventors' Month, a time to celebrate invention, creativity, and the many positive contributions inventors make to society. By giving some additional recognition to inventors, perhaps the proverbial "person on the street" will come to know more about the individuals behind everyday technologies.
 
Oh, and the inventor of the photocopier? That was Chester Carlson….

Eric S. Hintz is completing his Ph.D. in the history of science and technology at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation examines the changing fortunes of American independent inventors in an era of expanding corporate R&D, 1900-1950. He was a 2007 Lemelson Center Fellow.

From Prototype, August 2009

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