Over the years working as a journalist in the high tech industry I became aware of a number of different stories concerning the origins of certain pivotal innovations and scientific discoveries, and how several were in dispute. I looked into some of them to see if there was any real substance to claims, many were at best spurious (symptoms of the Internet age we live in), but others seemed more weighty; and these eventually led me to write about what I had found out.
In the book, entitled ‘The Nearly Men’, I wanted to make sure that I gave a fair and unbiased analysis. Various articles and biographies have been written about the principle characters at some point before. But most of these publications have been partisan in their outlook, championing the cause of a particular individual. To get any sort of accurate depiction of how the events unfolded, I felt it was important to look at their accounts in context of the people who managed to reach the goal they had also desired. I personally had no axe to grind, for me the objective was simply finding out the truth.
Based on the material I compiled, I then offered my opinion on who had the more valid claim in each case, but it was also possible for readers to assess the evidence for themselves and make their own judgements.
The book describes a series of tales of treachery, deceit, and sheer bad luck, spanning a period of over three hundred years, and in this talk I will look at a few of these episodes.
There are a number of reasons why fame and fortune did not choose to look favourably upon the individuals discussed. For some it was a lack of time, insufficient resources, or poor business acumen, for others it would simply be they could not convince people that their ideas were worth listening to.
The light bulb, I feel is a good starting point for us. After all, it has become almost synonymous with innovative thought. All over the world it is used as a cultural symbol to signify a bright idea, and the person famous for creating it, Thomas Edison, regarded as the very embodiment of what it is to be an inventor. However, it could be argued that this whole image is ill-founded, and is in fact based on a hideous lie.
The public at large believe that this most vital part of modern day life was the responsibility of one man’s vision, when more than twenty-five years before Edison even contemplated the matter, a gentleman in Northern England had already made a workable device.
Joseph Swan, a Newcastle-based chemist first looked into using electricity to provide convenient and cost effective illumination in the mid 1850s. At the time the industrialised world relied on gas to light its houses and streets - a method riddled with inadequacies. Gas lamps operated as individual devices, meaning each one had to be turned on and off by hand. Indoors they were far from healthy, as they were prone to give off noxious fumes.
In itself using electricity as a means for illumination was not new, Sir Humphry Davy, had invented the arc lamp back in 1811, however this required too much energy for use in mass market applications, such as lighting homes or work places.
Swan read of how American John Wellington Starr had constructed an electrical light consisting of a short carbon pencil operating in a vacuum above a column of mercury. The problem with this apparatus was that it was still quite power hungry. In addition the inner surface of the bulb quickly became blackened by stray carbon particles, blocking out the light (which is pretty debilitating for a lamp really). Though Starr never succeeded in perfecting his apparatus, he took out a British patent for it in 1845.
Swan felt that, though still far from complete, this presented a way of circumventing the drawbacks of gas-based lighting. He experimented on how to create very thin conducting elements, which would thereby not burn up as much energy as Davy’s or Starr’s lamps. He tried using carbonised paper, baked in a kiln, to produce carbon spirals, which had enough strength to carry electrical currents without snapping.
The next hurdle was to find a means of producing a strong enough vacuum, allowing the emitter to be kept out of contact with air so it could irradiate without catching light, but this could not be considered a real breakthrough as it simply did not have any staying power. The device was incapable of running long enough to make it viable in a commercial sense. It was not until the early 1870s that improvements in vacuum pumps could furnish the levels of evacuation needed to proceed further.
Other difficulties still had to be overcome, however. As with Starr’s lamp, the interior of Swan’s bulb became blackened after a while, carbon particles given off by the element causing deposits to build up on the glass. Swan surmised that with the use of greater levels of evacuation this blackening effect could be abated. If everything could be completely dispelled from the bulb, then there would be no residual air to transport the carbon particles. Getting the vacuum to a lower level proved difficult though, the methods he was already employing were state of the art for that time.
He eventually hit upon ridding air from the bulb over two stages, first while the element was cold, then while a current passed through it. The plan worked; the vacuum could be maintained and a high current applied to the strip without any detrimental effect on it. By mid 1878 he had a lamp that did not blacken, and was not prone to snapping of the conducting medium. His creation was capable of running for a prolonged period of several hours, without interruption. Swan demonstrated the invention at a meeting of the Newcastle Chemical Society in mid December 1878.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Edison became aware of Swan's research. Unlike his British counterpart, he wasn't some part-time dabbler, he was a highly focussed professional, with a team of experienced engineers at his disposal. He set about improving on Swan's rudimentary design.
After a great deal of experiment with different materials, he eventually managed to create a carbon filament lamp which would run for over 1500 hours. Edison took out patents in both the United States and Great Britain in late 1879, and with Swan turning out light bulbs from his two European factories, the Englishman soon found himself in court. However this move was to backfire on Edison, who eventually lost the legal battle. They had effectively created a stalemate, each blocking the other from exploiting the huge potential market opening up before them here in Europe. The best course of action appeared to be amalgamation. Swan and Edison's companies merged in 1883, but the problem of the light bulb patents would flair up once more in 1885. While Edison & Swan United Electric wanted to enforce its monopoly and stamp out the growing number of companies infringing on its patents, Edison's priority began to be questioned.
As Swan had made several public demonstrations of his lamp before Edison's patent had been filed, it could be argued that the patent was invalid, Swan would be regarded as what is termed a 'prior user'. This offered a strong defence to anybody else who breached the patent. This whole mess could have been sorted out from day one if Swan had taken out the patent, unfortunately he felt that his work had only been an incremental improvement on Starr’s design, and out of respect for this didn’t apply for a patent of his own. As a result he had just part ownership in the company producing the lamps, only getting a cut of the money, and foregoing any claim to the sales in North America. To make matters worse it was soon to become apparent that he had to give up the glory as well.
The reason for this is as follows. If the company was to retain the Edison patent, then it had to prove that Swan's work pre-dating it didn't interfere. The best way to achieve this was to argue that the carbonated conductor Swan used in his lamps was not a filament (which formed the basis of Edison's system). The point was highly contentious (in fact there was no actual difference in the illuminating element either used), but somehow the British courts bought it. The patent was upheld, and the company's strangle hold on the market was assured.
Nevertheless it came with a high price, Swan had been forced to cheapen his achievements to save the business, and the magnitude of his contribution to one of the most important innovations in modern times had been greatly diminished. Eventually Edison bought him out of the business. He died in May 1914, and his name slowly disappeared into the void of anonymity.
It is estimated that there are 8 billion light bulb sockets in operation globally. These devices have been sold in legion to every corner of the world for one hundred and twenty years. With regard to something so fundamental to human civilisation, it appears rather unreasonable that one person should be accepted as its sole creator. It seems fairer to conclude that Swan and Edison had both been highly influential in its development, and are equally deserving of our gratitude.
One alarming trend that I discovered over the course of my book was how often the injured party tended to be from one particular nation – namely Great Britain.
It is hard to say why us limeys seem to have such an unfortunate habit. Whether the population of this ‘sceptred isle’ intrinsically easy to rip off, or we have some sort of metaphysical ‘L’ stamped on our forehead at birth, I am not sure. In the past perhaps men like Swan tended to live up to the old stereotypical characteristics of English fair play. Though it is admirable that we try to do the honourable thing, there are times when it certainly hasn’t done us any favours.
Another aspect that has certainly been detriment to our success is lack of investment in ideas, and I would like to briefly look at a few examples of where Britain has lost out as a direct result of not fronting up the money needed to get things off the drawing board.
Just as the UK had been responsible for creating most of the sports played around the globe, yet we are still totally awful and nearly all of them, our nation’s ability to reap the rewards of its citizen’s inventiveness has gone awry on many occasions.
The microchip (or integrated circuit) – almost without doubt the most important invention of the Twentieth Century would be the fruit of labours done by American engineers Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce in the late 1950s. However, British electronics expert, Geoffrey Dummer had actually been ahead of the game.
As far back as 1952, Dummer who worked at the defence research establishment in Malvern, was undertaking research into creating pieces of semiconductor fabric that integrated entire electronics systems, and built a number of basic prototypes. Over the next few years he attempted to perfect his model. He managed to get his department to back the scheme at first, but it soon lost interest. He was to fall foul of the arguments that it was just too costly to produce such things, and they were not as good as the separate components they looked to replace. With poor foresightedness on the part of the British government, the project was finally axed in late 1957.
Though the points raised by Dummer’s superiors were correct, and the devices would be more costly at that time than using discrete components, they had taken a very short-term view. In the years that followed a paradigm shift occurred. The need for more compact electronics would fuel demand for microchip technology – the space race, and nuclear weapons development being the initial driving forces. With increased proliferation of integrated circuitry the cost would fall, and this in turn allowed a wider variety of applications to benefit from it, reducing these devices unit costs still further. Today the microelectronics industry claims annual sales measured in hundreds of billions of dollars, and sadly Britain’s stake in it is almost too small to mention.
We suffered a similar fate in the development of computer technology. Firstly, it could be argued that Charles Babbage, who had financial support from the British government taken from him, was never given the opportunity for his brainchild of a mechanical analytic engine to fully mature, but in far more recent times (and possibly more damming), when advances in electronic engineering began to offer the means necessary to realise what Babbage had proposed, British efforts were once again scuppered by lack of capital.
We had been lucky enough to be blessed with a man who would make some of the initial breakthroughs in the nascent branch of science – in the form of Alan Turing. In the late nineteen thirties he had produced the initial conception of what he would later describe as a universal machine - capable of performing tasks without need to alter its construction – but simply by feeding it the correct tables of data. It would thus be able to deal with different jobs it was set, rather than separate machines being needed for each.
After the Second World War, Turing would carry on this work at NPL, where he was put in charge of a team looking to create an electronic computing device (in direct competition with work already in progress across the Atlantic on the ENIAC and EDVAC). The principle of the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) was to fully realise Turing’s universal machine. Though the ENIAC had been completed prior to this it was still not what we would call a computer in the modern sense – as it had to have mechanical alterations done to it in order to change what tasks it undertook.
Turing’s ideas on using an abbreviated code of instructions pre-empted the concept of a programming language. But although his thinking was making great leaps towards establishing the computer era, NPL’s construction of the hardware to back this up floundered. Due to the lack of engineering support Turing left NPL and went to Manchester University. While here he again showed a grasp of ideas way beyond the capacity of his peers. His writings from this period predicted the development of artificial intelligence, decades before it would become a reality.
Turing, the man who had been instrumental in deciphering the Nazi’s Enigma code, and had help bring the war to an end would suddenly be ostracized from British society, when, in 1952, he was arrested on account of his homosexual activities. Rather than face a prison sentence he was forced to agree a series of oestrogen injections, designed to reduce his libido. It is likely that this effected his mental state, and Turing was found dead from cyanide poisoning on 7th June1954 - the coroner’s verdict: suicide.
In North American the government, seeing the value that computers in the military arena, had furnished John von Neumann, and his team with far greater resources. Thanks to a mixture of neglect, bigotry, and financial indifference Britain had managed to squander its lead in the field of computing.
An interesting foot note is that Turing had administered the dose of cyanide that ended his life by eating an apple laced with the substance. Some writers have claimed that this inspired Steve Jobs in the late 70s to name his computer firm Apple – and the company’s logo is some sort of homage to Turing. Unfortunately this is nothing more than urban myth – Apple has denied it, the reference actually being to the fruit of the tree of knowledge and a hunger for technological advance.
The importance of the rights to the invention of the telephone can never be underestimated. In one US Congress report it was described as 'the most valuable single patent ever granted'. There are now close to four billion lines in service across the globe.
The commonly held belief is Edinburgh-born elocution teacher Alexander Graham Bell was responsible for bringing this to the world, but several other inventors felt they had been defrauded.
Back in 1849, when Bell was still just a toddler, Italian Antonio Meucci made a major discovery. At the time he earned a living in Havana by administering electrotherapy treatments.
He found after attaching electrodes to his subject, despite the thick wall that separated them, he could hear the patient in the next room - the current in the wires carrying the sound.
Meucci moved to New York, and set about improving his invention. He made a patent application for his 'Sound Telegraph' in December 1871. Unfortunately, he was not able to raise enough funds to purchase a full patent, so was forced to take out a caveat. Essentially this prevented anyone else from gaining priority for the invention. If another person filed a patent deemed to interfere with the incumbent caveat, then its holder had three months to pay for a full patent, and assure their precedence. The caveat cost only twenty dollars to purchase, as opposed to the princely sum of two hundred for the full patent, on the downside however, it had to be restored every year.
Sadly, it was his decision to go for this option that proved to be his undoing. If he could have somehow found the money to take out the full patent, the history of telecommunications would have been completely different, and I wouldn’t be in front of you telling this story.
He visited the offices of the powerful telegraph company Western Union, in early 1872, and tried to pitch his invention. Meucci gave over prototypes of his telephone equipment for testing. As the months rolled on an, he heard nothing back, and began to get impatient. Despite chasing them, he was given the run around for a year and a half. Eventually furious at the company's lack of interest, he demanded his materials be returned, but was mortified to hear that they had apparently been 'lost'.
The Italian may have been a good electrical engineer, but he was no business man. In this as well as a number of other ventures he was unable to make a success of things, and gradually he came closer to destitution. Unable to garner further support for his creation, he could no longer keep up the annual renewal fee of his caveat. However it is only fair to mention that during this period he did manage to get money from his associates to back other projects he was working on, so some of the blame clearly rests with him.
It is rarely considered that Bell was not actually an electrical engineer, nor did he have any telegraphic experience. Thanks to his research in speech therapy he created a system in which a number of reeds relays could represent different notes.
Though not originally designed for such a purpose, this offered telegraph companies the possibility of sending several different messages down the same line at once, increasing their throughput. Western Union gained interest in his invention, and during the spring of 1875 tested it at the company's laboratories in New York, which was incidentally where Meucci's prototypes had been stored and subsequently mislaid.
It was only following Bell’s return from these trials, that he started to look at sending human voice across wires (suggesting he gained access to Meucci’s prototypes).
He filed a patent in the early stages of the following year (……Feb 1876…..). A court battle ensued between Meucci and Bell, over the rights to the invention. No less the fifty affidavits from witnesses stated the Italian had constructed a working telecommunication device years before his counterpart. Nevertheless, the court was not impressed. The Bell camp was armed with a stronger legal team, and it was not hard to make the story of aged inventor, who had little mastery of the English tongue, look somewhat doubtful. The judge's decision was that Meucci's caveat was too vague to conclusively show that Bell's work conflicted with it. Though the case went to appeal, it was all to no avail. Bell managed to orchestrate a series of delays, and Meucci died before it went to court.
It did not stop there, Meucci's was just one of the conflicts that Bell would face. The release of the first telephone brought a great deal of uproar with it. Over six hundred lawsuits followed, in what was a golden age for lawyers. In a number of cases, other individuals would claim that Bell had stolen the idea from them. Among these were Johann Philipp Reis, and Elisha Gray.
Reis, a German schoolteacher, had developed a device for transmitting basic sounds across electric wires back in 1860. Its transmitter mechanism worked on the principle of a diaphragm, which moved in an out when hit by sound waves. This had a needle connected to it, which would make contact with an electrical circuit once the diaphragm became distended. However, this was effectively an 'all or nothing' arrangement, it just differentiated between the existence of a sound and its complete absence. At best it could make a rough approximation of some single letters, and was certainly not capable of dealing with a variation in the magnitude or pitch of the sound, so could not deliver an analogue representation of human speech. Reis's 'Telephon', as he called it, was only really suitable for transmitting musical notes or perhaps separate vocal sounds in isolation. Even Reis himself did not foresee any commercial potential, only using it as a toy, and made no attempt to patent it. After a few public demonstrations, he lost interest, and said nothing more about it until he saw the opportunity to try to capitalise on Bell's success.
Elisha Gray had a long track record of developing gadgets for use in telegraphy. Gray also filed a caveat for his version of the telephone, but thanks to a rather corrupt patent clerk Bell is thought to have got hold of Gray's application, and gleaned information from it. The extracted data allowed him to modify his apparatus, replacing the transmitter system with that of his counterpart.
Bell went on to be a globally renowned figure, an elder statesman of science and technology, blessed with a life of comfort until pernicious anaemia finally carried him off in the summer of 1922. Though what happened in the hundred and twenty odd years since his patent was granted is well documented, there is still no certainty as to what happened before that point, or whether his ingenuity was crucial to the telephone’s conception. Unfortunately the debate may continue for another six score years or more.
Equal controversy would arise in another field of communication - that of radio. During the early 1890s Serbian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla started to investigate what were at the time referred to as Hertzian waves. He gave lecture at the Institute of Electrical Engineers here in London in February 1892, propounding the idea of “transmitting intelligence without wires” by utilising these waves.
12 months later, at the Franklin Institute, Tesla made a demonstration of the transfer of a Hertzian wave. One circuit setting off a spark, another circuit picking up the signal.
Around ( mid 1894…) this time Englishman Oliver Lodge successfully transmitted a simple Morse code message using these waves, though it was only across a room.
By the end of 1894, Tesla had managed to pass a Hertzian signal a distance of forty metres. He could see that these phenomena could be used on a far grander scale than Lodge had believed. His Tesla inductance coil would serve many different purposes, but proved itself particularly useful in producing wireless signals. By 1897 he was capable of picking up signals from thirty kilometres away.
Tesla was not limiting his enquiries to simply sending messages, he felt it was possible to utilise these waves for transferring power.
His idea was to use the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere to transmit electricity over huge distances. The ‘World System’ Tesla proposed would allow energy to be distributed cheaply and simply over the entire planet. The patent application for this was submitted in September 1897.
But with the countless other projects he was involved in Tesla never devoted enough time to realising his vision. He was meandering along, trying to cover a number of bases at once, while simultaneously, a younger, seemingly less gifted individual was taking a more direct route, and before long would be making waves of his own.
It was in the mid 1890s that Guglielmo Marconi started to experiment with Hertzian waves, in the grounds of his family’s villa outside Bologna. His early forays were simple enough; he sent signals across a short distance to ring a bell. With time he managed to pick up signals from a range of a couple of kilometres. Marconi lent ideas from French scientist Edouard Branly, and Russian Alexander Popov in order to create a more optimised receiver. He relocated to England in 1896 to further develop his wireless system.
March 1889, he attempted the first international transmission, connecting Dover with the French town of Wimereux. This would be followed by his famous transatlantic transmission in late 1901 By this stage he was using a tuned circuit rather than emitting a broadband signal that swamped the airwaves, the same technique Tesla utilised.
Tesla eventually tried to sue Marconi’s firm for patent infringement ( 1915 ), but did not have the financial muscle to go through with along drawn out case. He was eventually forced to withdraw from the fight before it had really begun.
While Tesla looked at radio waves as a means of transmitting energy, Marconi just concentrated on using this technology to communicate over distances.
In hindsight it is perhaps easy to say that Tesla should have stuck to the job in hand, and set about trying to beat his Italian rival. Then maybe he would have been able to persuade financiers to back his ‘World System’ later. But his eagerness to get the project off the ground was too great, and by trying to do everything at once, in the end it meant he achieved less.
Lodge certainly deserves a brief mention. He made the first notable transmissions after all. However, he only saw the utilisation of radio being within relatively short distances. Just like Reis had with the telephone, Lodge did not grasp the true potential of this invention. He was one of the most verbose when it came to casting doubts on its scope, stating Marconi’s plan to send wireless signals across the Atlantic would not be physically possible to accomplish. So if it had been left to him, we would have progressed no further with this technology.
Although it cannot be denied that Marconi utilised devices developed by other inventors, he had gone on to do something with them that had real intent. While the others aimlessly messed around with their creations, Marconi added the direction needed.
In April 1943, the US Supreme Court debated the validity of Marconi’s radio patents, finally deciding in favour of Tesla, and stating Marconi’s patent contained nothing that had not been earlier published by Tesla.
Tesla did not live to see it, he had passed away nine months earlier.
Similarly, in September 2001, one hundred and thirteen years after the death of Meucci, US Congress officially recognised his contribution to the development of the telephone. Both Tesla and Meucci had finally received some vindication, even if it was belated.
Concurrent research has not always resulted in antagonism, however. In some cases it has benefited scientific advance. It is of course common knowledge that the research undertaken by Charles Darwin following his return from the Galapogos allowed him to produce a well-defined mechanism for describing how species developed. However, worried about the religious implications and the backlash his family might endure, he chose to hide his findings for almost two decades.
During this period, on the other side of the world, Alfred Russel Wallace was building up a dossier on evolution in South-East Asia. And as most of you will know, it was through direct correspondence with Wallace, in late 1857, that Darwin realised he was in danger of having his priority usurped, leading him to publish his research, after years of procrastination.
Wallace was considered a mere amateur, demanding little respect from scientific peers. Darwin, on the other hand, commanded much greater authority, and was backed by the scientific establishment.
To some degree Wallace and Darwin needed each other. They could not have got the job done in isolation. Wallace lacked scientific credibility to get evolutionary theory accepted on his own, but acted as a catalyst, forcing Darwin to take action. It is possible that Darwin might have otherwise taken the secret to his grave.
Tesla may have planted the seeds that brought forth radio communication, but lacked the faculty to convert it from a scientific curiosity in to a commercially viable venture. Marconi did not possess the same level of technical skill, but this was compensated by his proficiency in the art of public relations. He would use media hype, and take advantage of family connections to make sure people sat up and took notice.
Likewise, Meucci may have conceptualised the telephone, but he was unable to get anybody to take more than a passing interest in his creation. It needed someone like Bell, who could use his contacts in the financial world to get the project off the ground. There is little doubt that it is not always what is said that counts, but who says it.
“The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs. This is the difficult task of the inventor - who is often misunderstood and unrewarded”
This was how Nikola Tesla felt about the trade he plied. It’s possible his hapless experience helped to form this view, but maybe there is some deep-rooted truth to be found with in it. Perhaps the great innovators had to accept that their struggles might not be fully appreciated.
Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance, seemed content with a life of almost total anonymity, knowing personally that he played a key role in changing natural science forever.
So some of the individuals discussed here had to be satisfied with the spiritual rewards, happy in the knowledge their interventions helped mould the modern world, even if few knew the extent of their involvement. Wealth and high esteem are just transitory things after all, they cannot be said to have equal value to aiding the growth of civilisation.
To an extent each has been compensated for the pain they suffered. Even though they were once deemed losers in their day, things have changed for the better with time. History has to some degree redressed the balance.
Meucci received vindication from the US Congress, and has in some parts of the world supplanted Bell as the recognised inventor of the telephone. The Supreme Court acknowledged Tesla’s radio patents, and thanks to his multifarious quirks he has developed a something of cult following.
And though we haven’t discussed him in detail during this talk, another of my Nearly Men - Robert Hooke has had something of a renaissance in recent years, with a series of books, television documentaries, and exhibitions all helping to remind the world what a remarkable person he really was.
In fact the way ‘winners’ are judged in historical terms is open to debate. For example, take the race to reach the South Pole. Roald Amundsen was victorious, but the world remembers Captain Scott’s noble failure with far greater affection.
In addition, the truth can be an expandable thing. The outcome of who is adjudicated responsible for an invention or discovery is often dependent on cultural and geographical perspectives. The French prefer the idea that local boy Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the instigator of evolutionary theory, rather than Darwin, and Reis is considered inventor of the telephone in Germanic eyes.
I remember reading an article in the Guardian some years back, which pointed out how different editions of a certain encyclopaedia (MS Encarta) stated conflicting information on who had been responsible for particular inventions. For example, the British version claims Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell came up with the first telephone. The US version cites Bell too, but refers to him as American, while an Italian copy, as you might expect, chooses to cite Meucci. Likewise, when it comes to the light bulb, the British version acknowledges Swan, but the US adaptation credits Edison. What proportion of the basis of each case is down to knowledge of historical fact, and what is just simply patriotism is hard to be certain.
Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote, “Men follow the track made by others and proceed in their affairs by imitation.” This sentiment is echoed in the words of Joseph Swan, who equated innovation to “the conquest of some virgin alp” at first using “the steps of those who proceeded him” and after the last footprints had died out, taking the ice axe in his hands to cut the remaining steps.”
Hooke’s rival Isaac Newton, described it as standing on the shoulders of giants, while Edison was not so lyrical, and said it was just unadulterated thievery. The indisputable fact is all of them knew that they had to draw upon the toil their predecessors had gone through, to aid them in reaching their objective.
In reality there are no ‘Eureka’ moments. The path of technological advance is far too complex to be thought of in such a manner. It would be more apt to describe it in the form of a relay race. One person’s achievements being the starting point for another to take it a little
further, to pass the baton on to the next, or in some cases, have it unceremoniously snatched from them. History sadly concentrates on those who run the final stretch, and cross the finish line. Unfortunately, when it comes to invention all too often it is not in fact the person who takes the anchor leg that is instrumental in winning the race.
The telephone was a fusion of the work that Meucci, Gray, Bell and several others had done. With regard to evolutionary theory, Darwin must be considered part of an ensemble cast in which Robert Chambers, Lamarck, and Alfred Russel Wallace all played supporting roles.
Once again, in the development of the light bulb Edison, Swan, and Starr had all been significant contributors. For radio communication Lodge, Tesla, and Marconi all deserve thanks. In computing, Turing, von Neumann, Babbage, and others too numerous to mention had involvement, and it certainly seems unfair to give any single person the praise in its entirety.
It was back in the late Seventeenth Century that the Royal Society was founded. The scientists who brought it into being looked to capture the spirit of the Elizabethan scientific virtuoso and former Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon, who believed through methodical investigation a greater understanding of the world could be achieved.
It is apt then that the man who most characterised what the Society stands for should have the final word. He recognised the fact that any concept or idea is never perfect to begin with, it takes time and effort, as well as the support of others to make it so, stating that “as births of living creatures at first are ill shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time.” Perhaps some of the dramas we have looked at here would not have occurred if the individuals involved had remained true to this idiom.