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How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

The era of the American independent, professional inventor extended from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War—almost half a century. During this short period the United States became the world’s industrial leader, supplanting the United Kingdom, which had belittled the industry and technology of its former colony. Between 1880 and 1915 the United States moved ahead in the production of coal, pig iron and steel, heavy chemicals, electrical machinery, and electrical light and power. By the turn of the century the only notable exception to the trend was the British success in holding the lead in the production of textiles. These were remarkable decades, ones in which our inventors flourished.

And they did flourish! One American commentator, writing in Scientific American in 1896, exuberantly insisted that it was an “epoch of invention and progress unique in the history of the world. … It has been a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so stupendous in its magnitude, so complex in its diversity, so profound in its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficent in its results, that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a full appreciation of it.” The author rested his case primarily on the outpouring of American patents beginning after the Civil War. He diagramed the increase in U.S. patents for each five-year period, and the swing upward was striking. The average number of patents issued in the United States per year exceeded that of Britain, Germany, and France combined, and the number per capita in the United States was larger than in any of the other three countries until the last decade of the century, when Britain forged ahead for a time.

To explore the subject of independent inventors in that era, this essay focuses on four prominent, independent, professional inventors and examines the techniques they used to choose their problems and projects; their moments of insight, or “eureka” moments; their characteristic inventive styles; and the ways in which they funded their activities. All four were known for their contributions to the electrical industry, which was by 1900 the most heavily capitalized industry to have developed from inventions between 1850 and 1900. Like other independent inventors, however, their activities spread across a number of fields. The four are Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931); Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the American inventor of modern electric-power transmission; Elmer Ambrose Sperry (1860-1930), American pioneer in the field of automatic controls; and Lee De Forest (1873-1961), inventor of the modern vacuum tube. In common they lived by and for invention, and for much of their lives they survived without salaried positions in industry or government.

The latitude of professional inventors to choose their problems or projects makes them especially interesting. Unlike today’s inventor-scientists in industrial or government laboratories, none of the four were constrained by the conservatism of large organizations, which tend to take on a direction and a dynamism analogous to physical inertia, or momentum. An organization’s commitment of resources and personnel to a specific mission limits its flexibility and restricts its choices for new ventures. On the other hand, the professional inventors could shift fields of inventive activity with relative ease.

These men had a knack for thinking in terms of entire systems that were undergoing technological development.

Among Elmer A. Sperry’s more than 350 patents were major contributions to the technology of electric light and power; mining machinery; electric railways; electric automobiles; batteries; electrochemistry; gyroscopic guidance, control, and stabilization; gunfire control; and aviation instruments. The patents show that Sperry entered a field of industrial activity, such as electric light or electric streetcars, when it was new and developing rapidly, remained in the field about five years, and left it for another at about the time when industrial corporations, grown large, assigned staffs to solve the particular problems of their expanding technological systems.

Sperry knew that the problems attacked by industrial inventors and engineers were usually ones of refinement, ones especially suited to collective responses by well-equipped research teams. He said that he preferred problems that promised 95 percent breakthroughs rather than those that allowed only 5 percent refinements, and he repeatedly turned down long-term associations with large corporations. He probably agreed with Charles Franklin Kettering, another major inventor and entrepreneur of the early twentieth century, who said, when he heard that Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic alone, that it certainly could not have been done by a committee. Sperry eventually established his own industrial enterprise, the Sperry Gyroscope Company, with a small staff of inventor-engineers, but he delayed this transition until he was fifty years old and had about two hundred patents, and even after establishing the company, he left the routine problems to his staff, preserving freedom for himself. Moreover, several of the major inventions of his later years lay outside the gyroscope field to which his company was committed.