Innovation, Invention, and Edison

A very nice article in the New York Times today about Edison and the ways in which technological history gets (re)written by the victors: Edison….  In this case, Matt Richtel describes a voice recording recently discovered that predates Edison’s invention of the phonograph by 2 decades:

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville has certainly been obscure, at least until now. Researchers say that in April 1860, the Parisian tinkerer used a device called a phonautograph to make visual recordings of a woman singing “Au Clair de la Lune.” That was 17 years before Thomas Edison received a patent for the phonograph, and 28 years before his technology was used to capture and play back a piece of a section of a Handel oratorio.

Of course, it follows a similar pattern with Edison’s light bulb, the patent for which was turned down as too similar to one filed almost 40 years earlier (in 1845) by J.W. Starr. 

Insightfully, Richtel recognizes that "Whom we credit with an invention often has less to do with who came up with an idea, and more to do with who translated it into something usable, accessible, commercial."  This is, after all, the definition of innovation: the exploitation of a novel idea. 

The danger in pursuing "inventors" is that, while historians might be interested solely in understanding the facts of what happened when, too many others are interested in replicating the feats of these "inventors." If all we care about is who came up with the idea first then we miss invaluable lessons about what it takes to translate that idea "into something usable, accessible, commercial," which is the bigger challenge.