From the shady to the downright copycats, the origins of many famous inventors most venerated ideas seem questionable at best, writes Alan Coughlan
“If I have seen further, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton said this after a career of changing many of the fundamental beliefs of science. It is a perfectly succinct description of how scientific progress should be played out: through inspiration and co-operation. With a healthy knowledge of past discoveries and a hunger to build on them, progress should hopefully follow.
Yet nowhere in Newton’s simple manifesto is there room for stealing ideas, research or impinging on other people’s discoveries and claiming them as one’s own. Newton never said he got where he did by cutting the legs out from the giants that came before him.
James D. Watson and Francis Crick are the scientists regarded as the discoverers of the structure of DNA. At least, they are the ones that the history books usually credit. Most of the time, no mention of Rosalind Franklin is given. Their work that was arguably more theoretical than practical, as they had assumed (correctly) that if you could determine the shape of the DNA molecule, you could see what it did. However, Franklin wasn’t always well regarded by her peers, most likely because she was a woman. Famously, Watson quite viciously described her as “wilfully unsexy”.
She performed pioneering work using X-ray photography to uncover the Helical structure of DNA – work which made its way into the hands of Crick and Watson by way of her co-worker Maurice Wilkins (who also didn’t have nice things to say about her).
One piece in particular was the now infamous ‘photograph 51’ that Franklin had taken and which showed the structure of DNA to be a double helix. When in 1963, Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for their work on the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin wasn’t mentioned.
Franklin had died the year before of ovarian cancer and the Nobel committee do not entertain posthumous nominations, so there was no hope of official recognition in that domain. However, had she still been alive, it is more than likely that events would still have passed much the same as they did.
Moreover, if anyone today was asked who invented the telephone, they would most likely reply Alexander Graham Bell (patented in 1876). Not many would be able to tell you about the Italian inventor Antonio Meucci who filed a patent caveat for the telephone in 1871. During this period, he couldn’t afford the full price of the patent. It is said that he built the first electromagnetic telephone in 1856, as a way of communicating with his bed-ridden wife on the second floor from his basement laboratory.
There are historians who claim that the patent assessment somehow made its way into the hands of Bell who patented the device himself. These alleged circumstances arose when Meucci applied for his patent. He sent sketches and plans for his device to Western Union, but these records disappeared. Bell was actually working in the very Western Union office that Meucci sent his drawings to.
Meucci eventually took Bell to court claiming he had stolen his invention. Unfortunately for him, he died before the case could be completed. Today, the Bell patent for the telephone is rated as the most valuable ever issued by the US patent office.
History looks to Thomas Edison as the father of the lightbulb and a pioneer in the field of electricity distribution. His reputation and fortune were built on such discoveries and developments, but his level of success gave him power to try and step on competitors.
All of Edison’s electrical distribution systems relied on direct current (DC), a unidirectional flow of power that was used at the time to power incandescent lamps and motors. The electricity was transmitted through copper wires that, over lengths of just 2km, would experience large drops in voltage. This required power plants to be built within a 2km distance of the electricity’s users.
A man named Nikola Tesla, who was a former employee of Edison’s from Serbia, was to help in bringing about change. He devised the alternating current system – a system that could only be developed with a good knowledge of mathematics and physics, something that Edison lacked.
The direction of flow in the AC system periodically changes. Given that different levels of power were required for different services, there was a need for altering the amount of power delivered to clients. Converting DC power used large and expensive elements that periodically required maintenance. Converting AC power, on the other hand, required only simple transformers with no moving parts and no maintenance needed. This is ultimately why AC won in the so-called ‘war of the currents’, but it didn’t stop Edison from attempting some truly bizarre acts of sabotage both publicly and privately.
Edison staged some truly bizarre publicity stunts that attempted to turn public opinion against AC by scaring them. He electrocuted animals to death with alternating current in front of crowds, in order to show its dangers. He sent technicians to preside over the public electrocutions of stray cats and dogs, along with unwanted horses. There was even an attempt to popularise the term ‘Westinghoused’ to mean electrocuted – George Westinghouse being Tesla’s financial backer.
Perhaps the most historically significant of these stunts came through Harold P Brown (on Edison’s payroll) who built the first electric chair. When it was put to use on condemned criminal William Kemmler in 1890, it was a disaster.
Since no one had been executed in this manner before, the technicians did not know how much voltage was required to kill a man. The first blast lasted 17 seconds and severely injured him, but left him alive. It was only through a second attempt lasting more than a minute that he was killed. Smoke actually rose from his corpse at this point.
Westinghouse later commented on the matter, claiming, “they would have done better had they used an axe”. Meanwhile, Ira Flatow notes: “Kemmler was more than a victim of his crime, but also a pawn in a vicious battle between two giants of the industry.”
In terms of the practicality of electricity generation and transportation, common sense did eventually prevail and today most power is provided by alternating current. The system was just far more efficient than Edison’s. Years later, he was known to have regretted not listening to the young Serbian when he employed Tesla. Edison, at that time, only saw AC as competition that he had no time for.
Sticking with Thomas Edison, it is also notable that for many inventions, he is credited with creating accessories that he did not necessarily design. He had a utility patent for the lightbulb, but one Heinrich Goebel had produced a working incandescent bulb in 1854.
Furthermore, many highly similar inventions predate Edison’s achievement of a working lightbulb. It was in his perfection of designs that came before that made his version a success. Its practicality, coupled with the fact that he was a shrewd and ruthless businessman, assured him of success. Rather than its inventor, he should be more correctly remembered as the refiner of the lightbulb.
Gugliegmo Marconi is remembered as the inventor of the radio telegraph system. His device famously transmitted the SOS signal from the Titanic. Indeed, Marconi was credited by some as the saviour of the passengers who were rescued.
Marconi had made a name for himself while trying to invent a system to wirelessly send information across the Atlantic. He wished to create a system to compete with transatlantic telegraph cables. Marconi set up a wireless transmitter in Rosslare, Co Wexford and supposedly sent a signal to Signal Hill in Newfoundland Canada on December 12th, 1901. Nikola Tesla, who at this time was working in the field of transatlantic transmission, stated that Marconi was “using 17 of my patents”.
While it is true that good science will always build on the work of others, just as Newton did, there is a treacherous side to human behaviour that can undermine the whole spirit of a discipline that exists to serve humanity.
When Jonas Salk developed his polio vaccine in he 1950s, he could have made millions by selling it. Nonetheless, in an act of pure goodness, he gave it away for free. When asked who owned the patent he responded: “No one, could you patent the sun?” The continually unlucky Nikola Tesla ended his life and career financially stricken, after spending his latter years experimenting with methods of wirelessly transmitting electricity (which were decades ahead of their time) and altruistically trying to find a way to supply free electricity to all.
Perhaps it isn’t the most attractive prospect to teach to young scientists that their first duty is to humanity and not to themselves, but it seems the only worthwhile venture. Science should not be perceived as a business or a domain to achieve vast wealth at the expense of others, but rather as a means of benefitting all through the wealth of discovery.