If you have ever labored through MLA citations or submitted an assignment to turnitin.com you understand the lengths most people go to in order to avoid plagiarism. Nowadays, with harsh academic integrity rules and websites that can scan for copied information, students are help to a high standard for producing original work. However, this was not always the case, and multiple well known discoveries were in fact plagiarized from the original inventor. Over time, well-known scientists, such as Richard Owen, inventors, such as Thomas Edison, and authors, like Alex Haley, were found to not be the original creators of the work that was attributed to them. In this blog I am going to explore the history of stollen ideas and who they really belong to.
Consider Thomas Edison, known for being a prolific inventor with over a thousand patents in the United States. However, inventions such as the electric light bulb, the movie camera, electric chair, and x-ray photographs are often wrongly attributed to him. While Edison may have possessed the patents, many of his “inventions” were really discovered by others.
For example, Warren de la Rue, a British scientist, created a lightbulb in 1840 that used a platinum filament. His invention never took off, due to the high cost of his filament, but it was still a working lightbulb designed prior to Edison. Additionally, Joseph Swan created a light bulb using carbon filaments and patented his design in England. Unfortunately for Swan, Edison sued for patent infringement and while Swan’s patent was valid the two companies ended up merging. Edison did make some advancements with the practicality and cost of the previous design. However, his main achievement was not to invent the light bulb but to to obtain a patent and widely market the device.
The story is similar for many of Edison’s other inventions as well. The designs for devices including the movie camera and the electric chair were initially created by William Dickson and Harold P. Brown respectively. They were both employed by Edison, which is the reason he was the one to claim the patent. However, records show that their discoveries were made independently and that Edison had very little, if anything, to do with the idea generation he is given credit for.
While some think of him as a skilled inventor, his real area of expertise seems to have been in beating others to the patent office. Though the ideas many attribute to Edison were not solely his, he still had an important impact on the technology industry of his time. But, maybe he should be remembered as a savvy businessman (and a bit of an idea thief) instead of great innovator. Come back next week to hear the stories of other prominent figures whose famous ideas were not their own.
“The History of the Light Bulb.” Energy.gov, energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb.
Palermo, Elizabeth. “Who Invented the Light Bulb?” LiveScience, Purch, 16 Aug. 2017, www.livescience.com/43424-who-invented-the-light-bulb.html.