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How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

Nikola Tesla kept a distance from bureaucracies too. He worked briefly with the Edison company in Paris, for Edison himself in New York City, as a consultant for Westinghouse, and for several years with a small electrical manufacturing firm bearing his name. But after achieving some financial independence around 1890, he ultimately committed himself to an independent life with a small research laboratory. This gave him a wide latitude of problem choice. Among the fields into which he ventured as an inventor were electric lighting, electric power, wireless communications, automatic controls, wireless power transmission, turbines, air conditioning, and vertical-takeoff airplanes. He acquired more than one hundred U.S. patents.

Edison, of course, also preferred the role of an independent inventor with a well-equipped laboratory. When working in the 1870s as a consultant for telegraph firms, he longed to establish his own laboratory. After a number of lucrative patents and several years as a manufacturer of his telegraph devices, he fulfilled his dream and established his invention and research laboratory at Menlo Park, in rural New Jersey. There he gathered about him a community of craftsmen, mechanics, and appliers of science. The range of his inventive activity was impressive. The more than one thousand patents taken out in his name cover fields including the telegraph, phonograph, telephone, electric light and power, magnetic ore separation, storage batteries, concrete construction, and motion pictures. Such a range would have been unlikely in any industrial research laboratory tied to product lines.

The major independent inventors have tended to be radical; the large industrial research laboratories of the twentieth century are usually conservative. A radical inventor is one whose inventions disrupt the industrial status quo, whose projects do not anticipate lines of development presided over by existing large organizations, constrained as they are by technological momentum. Walther Rathenau, the former head of German General Electric, described institutional inertia, with its concomitant technological momentum, as arising “from the circumstances that the number of institutional forms is restricted; from the fact that inertia and parsimony of spirit make us glad to employ established formulas. … It is difficult to recognize the moment … when we should clear dead organisms out of the way, and when it would be well for us to introduce new outlooks.”

Because of their freedom, independent inventors needed to develop techniques for choosing the problems they would address. One way was by observing the pattern of patenting. As a young man, Sperry waited eagerly for the latest issue of the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office. In it he found abstracts of the most recently issued patents. By following the news of patenting, the professional inventors could discover where the other professionals were concentrating and, therefore, where problems likely to be solved by invention were located. Sperry said, “I was a constant student of electrical inventions … [and] took scientific and electrical papers by means of all of which I was enabled to keep posted as to the advances made in the art.” Edison kept posted too—both his laboratories had extensive libraries housing the latest technical and scientific periodicals.

When Sperry, as a neophyte inventor at age twenty, embarked on his inventive career, he concentrated on arc lighting. The choice is understandable, for the number of arclighting patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office was increasing dramatically—from eight in 1878 to sixty-two in 1882. By reading the patent claims, Sperry could identify problems precisely and try to find a solution—that is, an invention—that did not interfere with those already found but improved on them in some way. (Sperry also was guided by Prof. William A. Anthony of Cornell University, a pioneer in the academic field of applied electrical science,whom he asked about technical problems that needed solutions).

When Lee De Forest set out to become an inventor in 1899, “I began,” he recalled, “a serious systemized search through … physics journals, seeking to find some hint or suggestion that might possibly be a clue to the development of a new device which could be used as a detector for the receipt of wireless signals.” He probably also scanned the technical journals, such as Electrical World and Engineer , where the number of articles on detectors sharply increased after 1900.

Nikola Tesla began his sustained development of an alternating, or polyphase, power system in the mid-1880s. At the time, the knowledgeable inventive community was well aware of the need for a motor for alternating current systems, and polyphase motors and generators were patented almost simultaneously by Tesla, August Haselwander in Germany, C. S. Bradley in America, Jonas Wenström of Sweden, and Michael Dolivo-Dobrowolsky of Germany. Tesla’s professor at Graz Polytechnic, in Austria, had started him thinking along the lines that culminated in his polyphase power system. Other inventors, including Rudolf Diesel and Charles M. Hall, were similarly stimulated by professors who were well read in the technical and scientific periodicals, in touch with the technical community, and aware of the critical problems in developing technological systems.