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How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

Edison and his advisers used newspaper publicity to generate and maintain enthusiasm and financial support. His interview with the New York Sun published on October 20, 1878, attracted wide attention, for he announced that he had solved the major problems of an electric-lighting system. In fact, he had not done so and would not for at least a year. He promised that he would soon light up the entire downtown area of New York City with 500,000 bulbs; four years later his system supplied only 12,843 bulbs, all within a few blocks of the Wall Street district. A less enthusiastic interview, however, might have discouraged investors. Edison and Lowrey also staged dramatic demonstrations; Edison was the center of attraction during such exhibits, for he and his advisers realized that confidence in him was crucial for raising funds for the long-term project. The cultivation of Edison as inventive hero might also explain why Edison’s name alone is found on many patents and in much publicity when additional credit was undoubtedly owed to his laboratory staff.

Since World War II, independent inventors have stood in the shadows, often patronized as eccentric or even comical.

Lee De Forest was a master of demonstration and publicity as well. His ingenuity along these lines may at times have exceeded that in the technical realm. In 1901 he persuaded a press association and several financiers to fund installation of his wireless system on a tugboat so that he could report on an international yacht race, an event also covered with due publicity by Marconi apparatus on Gordon Bennett’s yacht. Despite interference between the two systems, which frustrated communications, De Forest went on to approach twenty-five “capitalists” in New York City for funds for the general development of his system. Several months later he met Abraham White, who had netted a fortune in government bonds, and found White “gifted with the optimistic vision that J. Pierpont Morgan and other tycoons whom I had solicited, totally lacked.” White organized the American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, issuing three million dollars in capital stock. Soon the company began winning publicity with transmissions across New York Bay. De Forest recalled that a “gratifying amount of public recognition resulted from this work” and that the recognition increased stock sales.

Other highly publicized installations financed by the company followed, and De Forest soon had thirteen patents pending. White equipped an automobile with a wireless transmitter and stationed it to flash American De Forest stock quotations to nearby brokers’ offices. Soon White and his salesmen, who were more interested in generating stock sales than in transmitting radio messages, pushed De Forest to build wireless stations all over the country.

In 1906 the bubble burst as the salesmen sold more stock than the company had issued, excessive expenditures exhausted the treasury, and another inventor brought suit for patent infringement involving the wireless detector. De Forest thereafter “found himself once again walking the streets of New York,” but “with experience, confidence, an international reputation in wireless,” if not in business affairs, and pending patents. He ultimately recovered and introduced, among other things, the modern three-element vacuum tube.

Independent inventors had characteristic styles. Simply reading the titles of Sperry’s more than 350 patents leads one to assume that there was little order or pattern in his inventive activity. A closer reading proves differently. The titles of his patents were broad, but most of the important ones involved feedback controls. His patents on electric light pertained to the automatic control of arclight carbons; the patents on generators had to do with the control of their output; streetcar patents dealt with the control of these; his numerous and seminal patents for ship and airplane stabilization likewise focused on feedback control; and his famous gyrocompass had feedback mechanisms. In short, his style was characterized by a remarkable range of applications of the principle of feedback control. He was the father of modern feedback controls, a field now described as cybernetics, automatic controls, or automation.

Sperry greatly preferred technical problems to problems of management and sales. In his early years as an inventor he took on the burden of running a small Chicago company that manufactured the arc-light system he had invented. The company proved no match for the selling power of the rapidly expanding Eastern electrical manufacturers, and Sperry discovered that routine administration left him no time for his first love, invention. After a few years the company went under, and Sperry blamed the competition. Afterward he chose to concentrate on difficult technical problems where those without his gifts could not follow. The characteristic Sperry style became directed toward highly complex feedback devices.