Some of the most important innovations in history have a long gestation period, with the person most famous for their development often drawing greatly from the work of other unsung heroes and sometimes stealing it outright. Sadly, the poor souls who did the hard work aren't remembered and "The Nearly Men" is an attempt to address that imbalance. From Antonio Meucci, the real inventor of the telephone, through Alan Turing, responsible for making major developments in computing; Robert Hooke, who postulated the concept of planetary motion before Newton; Nikola Tesla, who died almost penniless while Marconi used his theories to develop wireless radio communication and Joseph Swan, who came up with the design of the light bulb, only to have it snatched by Thomas Edison, these and many others have their stories told here in "The Nearly Men".
‘The Nearly Men: A Chronicle of Scientific Failure’ by Mike Green examines some of the most important inventions and scientific discoveries of the last four hundred years, and attempts to uncover the stories of deceit and ill fortune behind each of them. It goes beyond what the common reference sources tend to tell us, and aims to identify the individuals who were truly responsible for the technological advances that have defined the modern age.
The ‘Nearly Men’ include:
Antonio Meucci – Who despite developing the first telephone spent his whole life in poverty, while Alexander Graham Bell got all the glory.
Alan Turing – Whose huge strides in the conception of the first generation of computers were destined to never to be fully attributed to him, due to his untimely death.
Robert Hooke – Who postulated, amongst other things, the true nature of planetary motion, only to witness his rival Isaac Newton take all the praise for it.
Nikola Tesla – Who died almost totally penniless, while the ideas he had put forward for radio communication made Guglielmo Marconi a fortune.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck – Who correctly surmised that living things evolved, over sixty years before Charles Darwin publicised the fact, but was to die in ignominy with his ideas not appreciated.
Geoffrey Dummer - Whose musings on the development of the integrated circuit preceded those of Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby by almost a decade, but due to lack of vision by the British Government his plans were never to make it off the drawing board.
Joseph Swan – Who despite having the technical expertise that allowed him to design the first workable electric light bulb, was no match for the commercial machinations of adversary Thomas Edison.
From opening chapter -
How do you attempt to begin your first book? After the best part of two years working on this project, the thought has never been far from my mind. Through the of almost continuous strain, and endless cycles of optimistic elation followed morbid self doubt, a constant worry has always been located back in the rarely visited recesses of my mind – what the hell I was going to say to get the whole thing started. To be honest, even as I tap away at my bruised and battered laptop now, I am still unsure.
‘All the world’s a stage’ – definitely been done.
‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times’ – too pretentious.
‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way’ – hmm, seen it somewhere before.
Of course the underlying reason that I want these first paragraphs to capture everyone’s attention is that I would like this venture, which I have invested so much time and effort into, to some extent at least, to be a success. Every one of us in our small way would like to make some sort of mark after all, nothing much, just something to say we did not completely waste our ‘three score and ten’. I guess this is my little attempt at doing that, so try to be gentle with me.
The fact is that at some point we will all look back and ask what we have done with our lives, and question whether we made the most of the time that as allotted to us. So let’s hear it then, what did you do? Come on! Did you compose a symphony, create a work of art, discover a continent, or in someway make the world a more tolerable place for its populace?
‘Hang on a second’ you are probably thinking ‘I bought this book to have a bit of easy reading, you know, nothing too taxing. I certainly wasn’t expecting the ‘third degree’. It’s alright, relax, let’s face it there are very few people in the world who really make what could be considered a lasting contribution to our civilisation. On the whole we are just too busy trying to enjoy the frustratingly short lives that we have been given to bother getting involved in anything that serious.
Sure if somebody has the energy and the inclination to strive for something more, that is fine with us, no problemo. They do so with our blessing and hopefully get the rewards befitting the additional effort put in. But therein lies the central theme of this book (which you may already regret picking up - next time stick with the Andy McNab, you’re on safer ground there). What of those who made these sacrifices, but found that fate didn’t hold up its end of the bargain? How would you feel if you had tried to do something exceptional, but you still got ranked along with the rest of us worthless layabouts? It would be pretty annoying don’t you think?
Sadly history is a bit like this, it does not always get things right. Now and again it has chosen to forget about some people who did go that extra mile and aim for greatness, but ended up coming a little way short. Thus the back shelves of the annals of time are strewn with little-read tales of those destined to remain unsung heroes. Each deprived of their place in the who’s who of science and technology. The money, the kudos, the girls, all passed these poor, unfortunate souls by. As a result each has become part of a very exclusive club, though its membership may not be a highly-coveted one.
The name of this collection of the disgraced and discarded is the ‘Nearly Men’. Okay, not the most respectful, or tactile of nomenclatures it must be said, but I think it sums up the nature of their association quite well.
For the record, the ‘Nearly Men’ are:
Nineteenth Century Italian mechanical engineer and theatre technician, Antonio Meucci
Twentieth Century English mathematician and code breaker, Alan Turing
Eighteenth Century French botanist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
Victorian naturalist and social reformer, Alfred Russel Wallace
Seventeenth Century English geometry professor and surveyor, Robert Hooke
Nineteenth Century Serbian electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla
Twentieth Century American electronic engineer and Nobel Laureate, Jack Kilby
Victorian chemist and photography expert, Sir Joseph Swan
Some of you may have heard of one or two of these individuals, but the majority of them will be a mystery to most of you for sure. Even for those that you are familiar with, it is unlikely that you realise the full extent of their involvement to the progression of humankind.
None of them ever met, they were born in different parts of the world, in different eras, and lived markedly different lives. So what is it that actually connects these people? What commonality do they share? Well, the thing that binds them all, in one way or another, is that they each managed to miss out on one of the most important inventions or greatest scientific discoveries since civilisation began, and all the subsequent admiration that came along with it. Yes, but all of us could say that couldn’t we. Sure, that is very true, but these guys were close, painfully close, and in some cases they were just robbed. Almost all of them died in states of complete poverty, neglect, or even ignominy, overlooked by a society that did not respect or understand their particular brand of genius. By contrast the people they lost out to are virtually household names; Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, and Guglielmo Marconi among them. Each of these received a string of awards, widespread public acclaim, plus riches beyond measure, gaining credit for such innovations as the radio, the telephone, and the light bulb. While our chaps, the C-list celebrities if you like, got zip.
What follows is a series of tales filled with treachery, deceit, and sheer bad luck, spanning a period of over three hundred years. There are a number of reasons why fame and fortune did not choose to look favourably upon these guys, and we will try to analyse each in turn. For some it was a lack of time, resources, or business acumen. Others were hindered by a language barrier, a tendency to be too trusting, or simply they could not convince people that their ideas were worth listening to. One or possibly more of these proved to be fatal flaws in their character, and thus meant they would forever be assigned a second-tier rating in the chronicles of human endeavour. In the following chapters we will look at their lives and try to uncover what it was that lead to their disappointment, the ‘Achilles heal’ that each of them was blighted with, exploring the good, bad, and ugly aspects of each of their personalities.
Articles and books have been written about just about all of these people and the altercations that will be covered in this treatise have been discussed at some point before. But most if not all of these other publications are, at best, partisan in their outlook. They are championing the cause of a particular individual, and effectively only telling one side of the story. To get any sort of accurate depiction of how the events that shaped their lives were to unfold, and how they failed to realise the potential that they possessed, it is important to look at their accounts in context of the people who managed to reach the particular goal they had also desired. I personally have no axe to grind, for me the objective is simply finding out the truth. For that reason, in each case we will look at the person that beat them to it.
But wait a second, is all this really necessary, is there any serious doubt about who was actually behind these important discoveries, or is it all just ill-informed speculation? After all, type the words ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘priority claim’ into a search engine, and you are certain to get bombarded with all manner of outlandish and bizarre proposals. In a time where there seems to be a half-baked supposition about virtually everything, it is important to ensure that no rash conclusions are jumped to. The Internet Age has meant that any idiot can fabricate a semi-plausible story, so it seems prudent to tread carefully when it comes to building a body of research. I would therefore like to thank the various libraries and museums across Europe and North America for access to their countless volumes that helped me to prepare the reams of notes I scribbled down, in order to condense them in to the following piece.
Our journey will take us through every branch of the scientific arena; from biology to physics, from telecommunication to electronics, from mathematics to computer technology, and as your trusted guide I will try to convey as accurate a re-enactment as possible of the events that took place in each case. The last couple years has seen me partake in a world tour which has included stops in Florence, Paris, London, Cambridge, New York, Belgrade, San Jose, Stockholm, Dallas, Boston, and Munich. It has given me the chance to visit the places where these people once lived, the sites of their great triumphs, and their bitterest defeats.
To cover all these people in the same depth as a biography devoted specifically to one individual would be impossible, but by looking at them in this particular form it will enable us to make comparisons, and note the similarities in their make up that somewhere down the line led them down the wrong path. The aim of this work is to raise people’s awareness, and encourage readers, like your good self, to look further into the stories that are briefly described within these pages. Hopefully this will act as a catalyst for some of you to do further investigations of your own. It should not be judged as a comprehensive or definitive reference, but more as a starting point for more widespread reading on any of the particular topics covered that might prove of particular interest, or on the lives of those involved that the reader may feel they identify with especially.
As no other book has looked at all these people together, hopefully this collection will offer some insight into what it takes to be a true innovator, and how to avoid the six-lane expressway towards error. So those planning on rising above the rest of us freeloaders and actually making some sort dent on society, might want to start taking notes. The basic lessons apply now, just as they did back then.
Perhaps it has always been this way, for all we know the incidents that will be described have been going on for millennia. When the Neanderthals first migrated into Europe out of Africa, and settled in the plush evergreen woodlands they came across, perhaps they were corrupted by the same motives that plagued future generations. Who knows, maybe the bright spark (well the one with the slightly less sunken forehead than the rest) that managed to first create fire, soon afterwards found himself on the receiving end of a jawbone, wielded by another member of the tribe who thought that such an idea would secure him a larger mud hut with a nice view of the swamp.
There is something about failure that has always fascinated us. Just like novelists tend to concentrate on unrequited love, and tragedies have been what theatre-going audiences bayed for since the art form was first developed. The world has been, is, and will probably always stay a nasty and devious place, and in truth, most of us like nothing better than hearing about it. So with that in mind let’s begin.
Ladies and gentlemen, for one night only, I give you……..the ‘Nearly Men’.