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Section 2. The challenge of simultaneous invention

Section 2. The challenge of simultaneous invention The lone inventor > The challenge of simultaneous invention

2. The challenge of simultaneous invention

Have you ever arrived at a party or work to find that someone is wearing the same shirt, pants, or shoes as you? It's a curiosity of modern life that we convince ourselves our wardrobes are unique, despite selecting the items from department stores' racks filled with dozens of the same shirts, slacks, and blouses. An observant shopper watching the goings on at the mall can easily imagine someone—roughly her size—heading home with a similar outfit. Yet if she ever does meet her fashion doppelganger at a party or on the street, she is astonished: "How could she wear my wardrobe?" Once obtained, regardless of how or why, we take conceptual possession: "That shirt with those pants is my idea."

Fashion is a good metaphor for the problem of simultaneous inventorship: the situation when two or more people claim to have invented something. Like wardrobe collision, it seems improbable in the moment that two people could unintentionally invent the same thing around the same time; stepping back, it's easy to see why it happens. The invention of calculus, television, telephones, bicycles, motion pictures, MRI imaging, and automobiles all involve various kinds of simultaneous, overlapping, or disputed origins.

It's common because innovations demand prerequisite knowledge—inventing a new cocktail (e.g., The Berkun [Section 2. The challenge of simultaneous inventionSection 2. The challenge of simultaneous invention] ) requires experience with different liquors, and creating a new dance step (e.g., The Edison) demands knowledge of choreography. This narrows the number of people who could create a particular innovation. Add the limited number of popular problems in any field, and suddenly the number of people chasing particular challenges isn't so large.

[Section 2. The challenge of simultaneous inventionSection 2. The challenge of simultaneous invention] Nominations for recipes for the drink "The Berkun" can be submitted at http:// www.scottberkun.com/contact. Entries that include sarcastic ingredients such as "bad writer juice" or "idiot Schnapps" will be disqualified. Winner receives paid vacation to Hawaii (total lie).

For example, there are only so many people today working on better word processors, photo-sharing web sites, or email applications. They go to the same industry events, read the same books, and see the same progress among mutual competitors—not to mention the shared experiences that come from being alive at the same time (and at a good time). In Creativity in Science, Dean Simonton explains:

Galileo became a great scientist only because he had the fortune of being born in Italy during the time when it became the center of scientific creativity. Similarly, Newton's creative genius could appear only because he lived in Great Britain when the center had shifted there from Italy. If Galileo and Newton had switched birth years without changing national origins, then neither would have secured a place in the annals of science. [double daggerdouble dagger]

[double daggerdouble dagger] Some believe in the zeitgeist theory of innovation—that cultural forces tell the true story of innovation. How else can we explain the Western Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Dark Ages without looking at the entire environment? From this viewpoint, individuals pay a large debt to factors beyond their control.

Given the combination of shared factors, odds are reasonable that people in the same field, at the same time, studied in the same universities or learned from the same textbooks. They might even have mutual friends, drinking buddies, or dance partners, making the chances for simultaneous invention unexpectedly high: as free as people are to think creatively, there is a wardrobe of existing ideas that they're all shopping from.

What makes simultaneous invention contentious is that creators often work in isolation from—yet in competition with—their peers, making them prone to fantasies that their creations are unique. In the case of calculus (an innovation that destroyed my college GPA), two brilliant minds made the same conceptual leap, independently: Isaac Newton and Friedrich Leibniz separately developed systems for calculus. In that particular case, the inventions were offset by time, so they weren't technically simultaneous: Newton didn't formally publish his work until 1693; Leibniz published in 1684. Despite their love of reason, things were ugly in the scientific community as debates raged over which man was the rightful inventor—for years England and Germany, Newton's and Leibniz's respective nations, used different versions of calculus, each one claiming righteousness out of national pride. [§§]

[§§] In The Engines of Our Ingenuity, John Lienhard writes, "That riddle dogs all of science. Equally futile arguments rage over who discovered oxygen. Was it Priestley who first isolated it? Lavoisier, who recognized it as a new substance but failed to identify what the substance was, or Scheele, who got it right before either Priestley or Lavoisier but didn't publish until after they had?"

More recently, the invention of television involved a five-way overlap of creative effort more complex than the Newton/Leibniz debate. Paul Nipkow was the first to consider sending images over wires back in 1884, but he never made a working prototype. In 1907, A. A. Campbell-Swinton and Boris Rosing were the first to suggest cathode ray tubes, but it wasn't until Vladimir Zworkin and Philo Farnsworth—working separately in the 1920s—that true working models of television existed. The inventors worked independently but simultaneously at the same basic goals with trails of overlapping concepts, progressions, and business politics too complex to follow. Like most innovations, if you crack open the invention of television in search of singular answers, you find more questions (which we'll explore later in this chapter).

One solution would be to clarify what it means to be "the inventor." As Brian Dickens, a software engineer explains:

It is open for question whether "inventor" should suggest the person who came up with the initial idea for an item, the first person to build a working model, or the first person to successfully commercialize the invention. Obviously, for a new technology to ever make it into practical use, all three of these steps must be taken—but they will never be made all at once by the same individual, with no outside influences. [||||]

[||||] http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/DICKENS.html.

It's smart advice. The problem is the sizable work involved in sorting out these details. The convenience of collapsing these facts down into a simple story is hard to resist.