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Introduction: How Exactly Did They Think Of That?
Our compendium of 25 of the most crazy-creative, thinking-outside-the-box inventions in American history
Fall 2010 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Sometime in the 20th century, public perception of the American inventor converged with the image of a mad scientist into a wild-eyed caricature of a raving lunatic, steam pouring from his ears, hair askew, slide rules or calculators falling out of his pockets: Albert Einstein too brilliantly distracted to put on socks; Thomas Edison curled up exhausted on his desk in his lab coat and shoes; or the unforgettable " Doc" Brown muttering under his breath as he fiddled with the DeLorean's flux capacitor in the Back to the Future film trilogy.
While entertaining, this caricature distances the general public from the inventor by suggesting that the process of innovation requires a temporarary or even permanent loss of sanity, as well as a level of bookishness and braininess beyond most people's ken. The inventor, it seems, is touched by some otherworldly fire.
The following portraits of 25 inventions and their creators belie this stereotype, as many readers of Invention & Technology, many of whom are inventors themselves, already know. Such men and women are not remotely crazy, even if they come across as odd, even eccentric. Their genius comes not from some divine fire but from more prosaic qualities of persistence, logic, imagination, and intuition. Sometimes an element of luck, which favors the prepared, as Pasteur reminded us, comes into play.
One of the defining characteristics of being human is the ability to innovate and invent. But that very humanity contains darkness as well as light—and some of the discoveries in the following pages have opened up a Pandora's box. Little did Thomas Midgley Jr. know that the chlorofluorocarbons he developed and which were later used in aerosols would rise into the upper atmosphere, react with ultraviolet radiation, and create a deadly hole in the ozone layer. While Hiram Maxim knew that he was creating an efficient tool of destruction with his new machine gun, he could not anticipate the fields of slaughter that his invention would create during the world wars. Other inventions, however, have nearly wiped out certain strains of childhood leukemia. And the mechanized cotton-picking machine ended a centuries-long brutal dependence on hand picking, which itself supported the inhuman institutions of slavery and sharecropping. At its best, invention has heaped upon us many new and effective instruments with which to exercise our curiousity, whether it's using CCD technology to peer more deeply into the heavens or leveraging COBOL, a computer language that helps focus and organize megacomputers, to explore quantum physics.
We purposely chose not to evoke America's top inventions and inventors—Morse and the telegraph, Bell and the telephone, Ford and the Model T, Salk and the polio vaccine. Such stories are already famous and their inventors acclaimed. Instead, we dug back into our archives and pulled out the stories of equally great but lesser-known inventors. Although many reaped little more than a creator's satisfaction, they nonetheless brought tectonic shifts to our culture, stimulating new fields of human endeavor. Every corner of modern society has been touched by the innumerable efforts of largely unknown, dedicated inventors and tinkerers.
What emerges from these stories is a panorama of America at its best, innovation flowering in sheds, laboratories, fields, and basements. These stories, speaking to something far greater than the urge to make money, illustrate a noble aspect of the human spirit: the desire to create better efficiencies, solve problems, make life easier, and cut new pathways.
Perhaps there is a kernel of truth after all in the image of the mad inventor: he or she does not accept reality as it is, but continually reaches for Prometheus's fire, wielding extraordinary power to transform our lives.