#3 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Issue 2          September 1992

How the Heroic Inventors Did It
An interview with Thomas P. Hughes, Ph.D.

Dr. Hughes, Mellon Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, studies technology development.  He has written several books, the latest entitled, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm  (Penguin Books, 1989).

R&D Innovator:  You have studied the methods of important inventors from the period of about 1880 to 1930, including the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Elmer Sperry, and Lee de Forest.  What is it that makes these people especially interesting? 

Thomas Hughes:  It's remarkable that many of the large transportation, communication, and power systems that we take for granted today were the inventions, not of industrial research scientists working for large corporations, but of these independent inventors.

Innovator:  Were there common characteristics among these inventors?

Hughes:  They were free of the constraints that large organizations place on employees.  Of course large organizations also give support, but they tend to constrain inventors or research scientists to applying their creative talents for improving systems that the organization is focusing on.  An independent inventor doesn't feel those constraints and has more freedom of choice of problems. 

Another thing:  these people generally preferred to invent entire systems, rather than incremental improvements or components.  They can be called radical, breakthrough inventors.

They also had repertoires of elements that they tended to repeatedly combine in new ways.  For instance, Elmer Sperry, the founder of what used to be the Sperry Gyroscope Company, was a remarkably creative independent inventor.  He was responsible for a large number of seemingly diverse inventions.  The first time I read his list of inventions, I asked, how can this be?  He was described as an inventor of a street car, of mining machinery, of a gyrocompass, and other remarkably different artifacts.  The theme, I found out, was that he repeatedly chose to concentrate on the invention of a device, the essential feature of which was feedback.  Thomas Edison was very good in incorporating electromechanical devices into new combinations that resulted in inventions.  And while these people's output seems to range over a larger array of inventions, their repeated pattern was to combine a few essential elements which they had mastered.

Innovator:   What about their backgrounds?

Hughes:  They tell of having been very interested in physical devices and artifacts when they were young.  All began work on major inventions before they were 30.  Many of the prominent independent inventors had no university education. 

Several of these inventors routinely distrusted "experts," especially from universities.  They thought these experts applied "old" knowledge --suitable to old situations--to new situations that were different.  For instance, experts who told Edison that his electric light system would not work drew from expertise on the old electric light systems that were wired in series.  This knowledge drawn from existing systems simply was not appropriate for the newness of what Edison planned to bring to the market.

Innovator:   Anything in common about their work styles?

Hughes:  Tesla, Edison, Sperry and others, tended to work outside of large organizations, but they had support groups that were entirely of their own making and design.  They would establish a laboratory that reflected their particular interest and bring in the people they needed to develop the system they were working on.  And so they were not dealing with peers, they were dealing with people who amplified their talents. 

They judged themselves by peers' and society's acceptance of their patents and inventions.  They needed to prove their creative genius.  Money did not seem to be a primary driving force.  They tended to live off the income from their inventions--they were professionals.  The money they made usually was invested in setting up new labs and hiring the technologists.

Innovator:   How did these inventors get their ideas?

Hughes:  Many of them invented by thinking metaphorically.  One of the nicest examples of this is Edison's using a water pumping system with its pipes, valves, reservoirs as one side of a metaphor.  The other side was the quadruplex telegraph--which transmitted four signals over one wire--that he expected to invent.  He said, "My quadruplex telegraph will be like a water pump."

Because the inventors were visually oriented, their metaphors were of physical things; they weren't word metaphors. 

They were well-versed in the technical literature.  They knew what other inventors were concentrating on.  For example, when he was in his teens, Elmer Sperry regularly read the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office .  Thus, he found out what other inventors were concentrating on.  This identified for him which problem areas needed solution.  The inventors borrowed heavily from old patents and the current literature.  They did not come up with thoroughly new artifacts but with new combinations and improvements.

Innovator:   Doesn't that contradict your previous statement that the independents tended to do breakthrough inventions, not simply improve on what was already done?

Hughes:  No.  Breakthrough inventors didn't improve on what was in use, what was already in the market.  They took the one step beyond other inventors who had failed to bring something to the market.  Edison improved upon earlier incandescent light patents and inventions that had not been successfully marketed.  So, he made the critical improvements that resulted in the breakthrough that led to bringing an electric light system into use.

Innovator:   But, bringing something to the market clearly involves a great deal of interaction with others.  Yet you say these people worked, to a great extent, in isolation.

Hughes:  They were interested in getting the invention into use and, of course, realized the importance of lawyers, financiers and businessmen.  The inventors generally were not good managers of people or organizations.  They learned this sometimes through unfortunate early business experiences.  So they worked with others who did take charge of managing the business.  For instance, Sperry used his inventions and patents to form companies, but he would not be involved in their management. 

But the inventors did help raise money and help organize demonstrations of their inventions.  They knew, from the time they chose the problem right through concept, development, innovation, marketing and financing that they needed to be involved in all aspects of innovation even if they weren't good at some of them.  Therefore, they didn't come up with theoretical concepts, which when further developed would prove unsuited to the realities of the market.  They were true entrepreneurs.

Innovator:   A common theme in industry now is to get the R&D staff more in contact with manufacturing, marketing and customers--to get them to appreciate all the expertise required to innovate. 

Hughes:  It's ironic that one of the lures of the industrial research lab in the 1920's was to free inventors from these responsibilities.  Perhaps now this attitude is changing.

Innovator:   It seems that very few researchers pay attention to the history of science and technology.  But there are valuable lessons to be learned.

Hughes:  I'm afraid too many engineers and scientists--and I say this with a great deal of feeling--are not suitably appreciative of what can be learned from reading non-trivialized accounts of the lives and careers of  inventors during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the modern technological world took shape. 

A major computer inventor who'd read American Genesis  told me, "I didn't realize that Edison had many of the same problems I've had.  I was able to identify with him and it helped me to understand better who I am and what I'm doing."

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