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How Did The Heroic Inventors Do It?

Sperry knew himself well, and throughout his life he chose his problems appropriately. This was not the case with the mature Edison. In his early years as an inventor Edison concentrated on small, precision, even elegant, electromechanical devices such as the stock ticker, the telegraph, and the telephone. These involved the application of scientific laws dealing with the conservation of electrical, mechanical, magnetic, and other physical forces. The phonograph of the early years was a simple but highly ingenious mechanicalacoustical device. When he turned to electric lighting, he was still applying familiar and congenial principles. It was after Edison moved to the large laboratory at West Orange and chose to develop a large-scale ore-separation process that he seems to have lost his sense of identity as an inventor, for he became an innovating industrialist. Instead of seeking new applications of Faraday’s, Joule’s, and Ohm’s laws, he became concerned about mass production and unit costs.

It is hard to understand this change in character. His ambition may have driven him to compete with the great industrialists who were capturing the public imagination and amassing immense fortunes at the close of the century. Matthew Josephson, Edison’s biographer, associates the change of style with Edison’s marriage—after the death of his first wife—to Mina Miller, the daughter of an Akron philanthropist, the purchase of a baronial estate for her in West Orange, and his establishment of the new laboratory. After constructing a large ore-separation plant near Ogden, New Jersey, in 1892, Edison spent almost a decade diligently improving the efficiency of the plant and introducing labor-saving machinery. The principles he was applying, however, were those of the production engineer and the capitalist. The decline in iron-ore prices from Lake Superior ultimately doomed his venture, for, despite efficiency, his process could not compete in price. No amount of ingenuity and inventiveness could overcome that fact.

Paradoxically, Edison now became even more deeply involved in the development of large-scale manufacturing processes requiring investments and institutional structures that would more severely constrain his flexibility. He ventured into cement manufacture—also an industrial process—so that he could make use of some of the equipment and know-how developed for ore separation. As technological momentum of his own doing overwhelmed him, he behaved more like the “small-brained capitalists” he had once despised. During World War I, as head of the Naval Consulting Board, he advocated the establishment of a laboratory that would develop heavy naval equipment and design and draw up specifications for the manufacture of airplanes, submarine engines, small guns, and “everything relating to war machinery.” After the war, he tried to cultivate new sources for rubber, another large-scale industrial field. The ingenious inventor had indeed become a would-be captain of industry.

Nikola Tesla experienced no such loss of professional identity; he remained the independent inventor. His inventive concepts grew grand—some thought unrealistic—but unlike Edison he felt no fascination with the principles of large-scale manufacture or the power of the industrial barons. He continued to be gripped by abstract concepts of energy and the application of these to useful ends. His vision of rotating magnetic fields was one of swirling energy. He foresaw energy transmission without wires over great distances, and he also invented devices for wireless communication and control. Tesla often discussed his concept of universal energy, which, he believed, permeated space. Eventually, he said, it would be possible to attach machinery to the “very wheelwork of nature … I expect to live to be able to set a machine in the middle of this room and move it by no other agency than the energy of the medium in motion around us.”

Since World War II the prestige of science, especially physics, the publicity given to industrial research laboratories by the corporations that own them, and the funding given to academic science and engineering have all tended to cast invention and inventors into the shadows. The independent inventor is often patronized as eccentric, even comical. Only recently have some of the widely circulated science journals begun to use the terms invention and inventor respectfully.

If recent concern about industrial and technological lethargy in the industrial nations persists, we may find more of our contemporaries paying attention to, even learning from, a past when the independent, professional inventors flourished in an epoch of astounding vigor and creative drive. There is yet much to learn.