from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Issue 2
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.
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.
thing: these people
generally preferred to invent entire systems, rather than
incremental improvements or components.
They can be called radical, breakthrough inventors.
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
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.
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
the inventors were visually oriented, their metaphors were of
physical things; they weren't word metaphors.
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
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
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.
It's ironic that one of the lures of the industrial
research lab in the 1920's was to free inventors from these
now this attitude is changing.
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.