Chapter 5. The lone inventor

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Who invented the electric light? No, it wasn’t Thomas Edison. Two lesser-known inventors, Humphry Davy and Joseph Swan, both developed working electric lights well before Edison. Think Ford invented the automobile? Wrong again. Unfortunately, popular credit for major innovations isn’t decided by historians: it’s driven by markets, circumstance, and popularity, forces not bound by accuracy. Often, even historians have trouble sorting it out. Here’s what the U.S. Library of Congress has to say on the subject, specific to the automobile:[92]

This question [of who invented it] does not have a straightforward answer. The history of the automobile is very rich and dates back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for transport vehicles. There are many different types of automobiles—steam, electric, and gasoline—as well as countless styles. Exactly who invented the automobile is a matter of opinion. If we had to give credit to one inventor, it would probably be Karl Benz from Germany. Many suggest that he created the first true automobile in 1885/1886.

If the librarians at the largest library in the world don’t know for certain, how could we? There are similar complexities surrounding most innovations, from the first steam engines to personal computers or even airplanes (no, the Wright brothers didn’t invent them[93]). As simple ...

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