Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 11, 2015: American Inventors: Bell and Edison

[This coming weekend will mark the 250th birthday of Robert Fulton, about whose influential invention I’ll write in Friday’s post. All week I’ll AmericanStudy some of our most complex and significant inventors—and I’d love for you to share your thoughts on them and other inventors (and inventions) for an innovative crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On heroes, villains, and another way to see the historical picture.
It’s been a long time since my elementary school days, but one of the lessons that still sticks out from that era of my life—and one I’ve seen in my boys’ first few years of school as well—is that inventors are consistently highlighted as some of the most heroic individual figures from history, pioneering men and women who personally and decisively changed the world. Even though the 21st century world around us seems to offer numerous counter-examples to that idea—can anyone name or identify the individual who invented the cell phone? The personal computer? The internet? Or do we all instead recognize these as the product of cumulative work by many different people and institutions over many years—we still, I would argue, cling to the heroic inventor narrative when it comes to figures from our past. And no two figures better exemplify that narrative than Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, whose inventions of the telephone and the light bulb are almost always (rightly) numbered among the most significant in our history.
I’m not here to contest that sense of significance, not as I write by electric light after talking to my boys on the telephone. But as historians have long known, and as is perhaps starting to get into our textbooks and collective memories as well, Bell and Edison not only did not pioneer these inventions on their own, they might well have taken some of the credit due to equally (if not more) pioneering colleagues. The articles at those prior two hyperlinks tell the story: of Elisha Gray’s groundbreaking work to develop the telephone, work at best copied and perhaps (as that first article argues) stolen by Bell; and of Lewis Latimer’s vital work in developing the light bulbs that became the standard, work that was done as part of Edison’s laboratories but nonetheless was almost entirely subsumed into a narrative focused on Edison as an individual inventor. The fact that Latimer was an African American only adds one more layer to the complexity of these histories and how they have been remembered; but even if we leave aside that piece of biographical information, there’s no doubt that our memories of these inventions are drastically oversimplified if not downright inaccurate.
So were Bell and Edison more historical villains than heroes? That’s what the first linked article on Bell and Gray overtly argues, and what many have argued in recent years about Edison as well (not only because of Latimir but also, as that linked piece notes, because of the lack of credit received by Edison’s rival Nikola Tesla). Perhaps such a pendulum swing is inevitable, given our past and to some degree still present embrace of the hero narrative for these figures; and if it can help us better remember forgotten inventors like Gray and Latimer, then it will at least be a productive swing. But it seems to me that the historical truth is the same as the contemporary one—that pioneering inventions are the products of multiple figures and efforts, across many institutions and years. What would happen if our narratives of the telephone and the light bulb didn’t fixate on Bell and Edison but didn’t seek to replace them either, and instead became like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, assembling individual pictures and figures into a collage of how these wondrous innovations came into the world? I’d say it’s worth trying and finding out!
Next inventive post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other inventors or inventions you’d highlight?

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