Chapter 5The Lonely Innovator Myth

In popular culture and historical narratives, a myth persists about the “lonely inventor,” toiling night and day until he or she comes up with an idea so perfect that it spits in the face of convention, blows everyone’s minds, and becomes a near overnight sensation, changing the world as we know it. Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, Samuel F. B. Morse and the telegraph, jazz-hating Thomas Edison and the light bulb—we often think of such luminaries as the great inventors of yesterday, from whom so many modern conveniences and technologies were born before being adopted en masse and spread throughout the world.

But that’s not exactly how it happens. In reality, Bell didn’t invent the phone. He actually filed for the patent—before he had even been able to get his invention to work—on the same day that a guy named Elisha Gray did.1 Morse wasn’t the only one to develop the telegraph in the 1800s; two English scientists actually filed for a British patent of a similar machine before Morse did so in the US, and before his famous public demonstration of the telegraph in January 1838.2 And good ol’ Tom Edison didn’t invent the light bulb at all—incandescent bulbs already existed before he figured out that a type of bamboo would act as a better filament than what was then being used.3

What truly led to these three men’s success was that they had the necessary support to take “their” inventions to the next level. Bell had his assistant Thomas ...

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