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How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

The inventor needs intuition, insight, a poet’s imagination, and perhaps a touch of irrational obsession.

Elmer Sperry also conceptualized metaphorically. The most intriguing of his usages was in his speaking of machines as beasts. When working on one of the first airplane stabilizers, he observed in 1923 that “of all vehicles … the airplane is that particular beast of burden which is obsessed with motions, side pressure, skidding, acceleration pressures, and strong centrifugal moments … all in endless variety and endless combination.” He characterized an early ship stabilizer of another inventor as an “English blood ugly … a brute of a machine.” Throughout his career, Sperry, the great American pioneer in automatic controls, was, as he put it, taming the beasts. He spoke of harnessing “that brute” and of “putting the little fellow to work” (after the brute had been brought to heel). We can only speculate about what psychological drive impelled him to repeatedly use this metaphor in speaking of his inventions, which he once called “these queer dreams of mine.”

Like innumerable other inventors, Sperry proceeded metaphorically as he simulated machines and structures for testing. He assumed that the commonplace characteristics of a swinging pendulum could be projected onto a rolling ship despite their dissimilar appearances, so when developing his ship stabilizer, he used a small pendulum as a ship and mounted a laboratory gyro on it. A full-scale ship would have permitted him to avoid the imprecision of a metaphor, but the cost would have been prohibitive—a pragmatic argument for the metaphor.

Lee De Forest, the father of radio, also inclined to metaphor. His most renowned invention, the triode vacuum tube, began its long conceptual history as a chance observation and a durable analogy. In Chicago in 1900 he observed that a gas burner brightened when sparks were discharged toward it. He assumed the incandescent particles or hot gases of the flame were responding to the electromagnetic radiation—Hertzian waves—emitted from the spark transmitter. Had this been the case, he would have had the possibility of developing a wireless detector, or receiver, on the basis of the observed phenomenon. Soon afterward, however, he established that the flame was reacting to sound waves, not electromagnetism. “I had discovered,” he recalled, “simply a novel form of ‘sensitive flame’!”

De Forest’s initial reaction had been erroneous, but, if we can rely on his memoirs, it was a highly important event in the history of technology. The illusion that the flame was responding to electromagnetic waves “had persisted in my mind so long and I had cogitated so intently in seeking some explanation for the supposed effect … that, notwithstanding this shocking disappointment I remained convinced that the supposed action and effect did nevertheless exist.” Convinced that it existed, he resolved to find it; the search culminated in his invention of a gas-filled three-element electronic tube, the fundamental early invention in electronics. When De Forest applied for a patent on the tube, in 1907, he still believed that the essential phenomenon in the device was the activity of heated gas when permeated by electromagnetic waves. His inventive analogy bore fruit, even though the fundamental phenomenon in his tube was electron discharge, a fact that he failed to comprehend.

Because they avoided salaried positions and longterm associations with large-scale enterprises, the independent inventors constantly faced funding problems. If an invention was not an incremental improvement to a system already being manufactured by industrial corporations, the inventor often appealed to individuals or organizations wishing to speculate. Sperry persuaded managers of the wagon works in his hometown of Cortland, New York, to fund the invention and development of his first arc-lighting system. For the wagon works the investment was purely speculative; the company did not intend to manufacture the system. In the 1880s, in Chicago, Sperry turned to private investors to introduce his arc-lighting system. A few years later Joseph Medill, mayor of Chicago, helped fund Sperry’s effort to develop a gas engine. When Sperry invented improvements for streetcars, a group of investors formed the Sperry Syndicate to acquire his patents and begin manufacture. Sperry usually received cash and stock in return for signing over his patents to organizations founded to develop and market the inventions. As the companies succeeded and his stock increased in value, he financed more of his own inventive activities.

In his prime, and during the development of his electriclighting system, Edison depended on investment bankers for funds. Among those who supported him were the Vanderbilts and Drexel, Morgan and Company. Grosvenor P. Lowrey, a prominent New York City lawyer, promoted Edison’s projects in these circles. Lowrey became not just a legal and financial adviser but also a champion of Edison’s work, deeply committed to helping the inventor fulfill his aspirations. Lowrey promised Edison in 1878 that the income from a successful electric lighting system would “set [Edison] up forever [and enable him] to build and formally endow a working laboratory such as the world needs and has never seen.”