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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.

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.

The various techniques used by professional inventors to make problem choices were alike in their emphasis on critical problems. Critical problems are those that, when solved, allow a technological system to become more efficient, increase in size, or grow in complexity. In order to identify such a problem, it is necessary to consider a whole system undergoing technological development, and the professional inventors seemed to have a knack for this. Consider what Edison wrote, for example, about his invention of a system of electric lighting: “It was not only necessary that the lamps should give light and the dynamos generate current, but the lamps must be adapted to the current of the dynamos, and the dynamos must be constructed to give the character of current required by the lamps, and likewise all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine, and the connections between the parts being electrical intead of mechanical. Like any other machine the failure of one part to cooperate properly with the other part disorganizes the whole and renders it inoperative for the purpose intended.

“The problem then that I undertook to solve was … the production of the multifarious apparatus, methods, and devices, each adapted for use with every other, and all forming a comprehensive system.”

Edison presided over the invention and development of the whole system, but even had the emerging system been presided over by others, he would have to have had an overall concept of it and understood the stages of development of its various components. Patent publications, technical journals, and professors could all help. The various inventors furthered the advance of the system when they identified critical problems relating to imbalances—what I call “reverse salients”—in the expanding system. Reverse salients are missing or inadequate components that restrict the development of the whole. Inventors who thought in terms of the whole were particularly adept in detecting these.


Metaphor is associated with genius and inventiveness. Max Black, the Cornell philosopher, has defined metaphor as the “use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary.” A metaphor, then, is a kind of invention. In a metaphor the word whose meaning is being illuminated and the word to which it is compared must interact so that the reader or hearer will project commonplace characteristics associated with the latter onto the former. In the case of the phrase “a mighty fortress is our God,” the reaction is to project selectively onto God certain qualities of a fortress, such as sheltering and being powerful and enduring. If the maker and the recipient of the metaphor do not select similarly from the array of commonplaces, the metaphor will be misleading. (A hearer would be puzzled by the association of God with the spewing of hot oil and the hurling of projectiles.)

The invention of machines, devices, and processes by metaphorical thinking is similar to verbal creation, but the fascinating possibilities have not been much discussed, probably because persons interested in language are rarely interested in technology. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an exception, and in creating Frankenstein ’s monster, she was probably influenced by the metaphor “man is a charged body.” When she was writing the novel, Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were discussing the principle of life and the possibility of creating it by electricity. Like so many of their contemporaries, they were fascinated by Count Alessandro Volta’s famous experiment in which he observed the twitching of a dismembered frog leg when lightning flashed.

Aristotle wrote that mastery of metaphor “is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.” A classic example is Newton’s observation of the similarity between the fall of an apple and the motion of the heavenly bodies. Having found the similarity, he presumed a common cause, so that the metaphor led to discovery. Poetry, like scientific discovery and technological invention, is heavily dependent on metaphor. And metaphors are made also by schizophrenics. Having observed numerous patients, Silvano Arieti, author of Interpretation of Schizophrenia , believes that the schizophrenic seeing similar characteristics in two dissimilar persons or things will sometimes take them to be identical. A patient who longed to be virtuous and who was a virgin identified with Mary, who was also a virgin. It was a case of metaphor gone mad.

The inventor needs the intuition of the metaphor-maker, some of the insight of Newton, the imagination of the poet, and, perhaps, a touch of the irrational obsession of the schizophrenic. The myth of the inventor as mad genius is not without content. Thomas Edison used metaphors extensively. He worked out the quadruplex telegraph, perhaps the most elegant and complex of his inventions, “almost entirely on the basis of an analogy with a water system including pumps, pipes, valves, and water wheels,” according to his son Theodore. Later, thinking metaphorically, Edison conceived of the interaction between existing illuminating-gas distribution systems and the illuminating incandescent-light system he intended to invent.

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.”

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.

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.