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The Myth of the Lone Inventor 297

Posted by chrisd
from the inventions-not-ideas dept.
Codex The Sloth writes "Malcolm Gladwell (who amongst other things, wrote "The Tipping Point") has written an article for the New Yorker claiming that the role of the lone inventor is over. The example of Philo T. Fransworth (the "inventor" of Television) who failed because (amongst other reasons) he didn't have the big resources of a company to allow him to focus on his innovations. The thesis is that it is rare to have a single innovation that makes a product workable and that getting all of the inovations together requires a (large) corporation. No doubt others feel different."
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The Myth of the Lone Inventor

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  • it may take the resources of a corp to bring it to market, but the article makes lone inventors sound useless.. if there weren't any, the corps would have no one to fund.
    • Invention starts with a single individual having a compelling idea. They don't start out as massively complex projects, they grow to be that way. A jet engine for example is a beautifully simple concept, but a modern jet engine now has complex control systems that the prototypes never had.

      Television - Baird BTW, not Farnsworth.
      Telephone.
      Hovercraft.
      Jet engine.
      Pneumatic tyres.
      RADAR.

      Just some examples where individuals had such good ideas that they felt compelled to pursue them.

      Large companies do not have inventions. The collective IQ of a large company is pretty damned low, for every bright spark, there's half a dozen PHBs making sure he doesn't rock the boat or upset the gravy train.

      Where companies help is with continuing incremental development, marketing and sales of the initial idea, usually after it's already proven to have commercial applications.

      It has to be said that Americans aren't really very good at invention anyway. It's the Scots especially and to a lesser extent, the English who are truly world class inventors.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:06PM (#3589107)
    We're reaching a point where it's incredibly difficult for a single individual to develop new inventions of any significance because of complexity. There is still a role for innovation by individuals, however.

    Even though software programs aren't inventions in the normal sense, I think this is one area where individuals can still have a huge impact, although we're also seeing most large software projects written by teams.
  • this has been said repeatedly. and it's always been proven wrong; just reading ANKOS is reassuring that there is plenty of open pastures ahead for the lone inventor. to be sure, though, the US "gubment" is sure working hard to make it come true.
    • his has been said repeatedly. and it's always been proven wrong; just reading ANKOS is reassuring that there is plenty of open pastures ahead for the lone inventor. to be sure, though, the US "gubment" is sure working hard to make it come true.

      I hope you realize that Steve Wolfram didn't do all that stuff in ANKOS alone -- as vain as Wolfram is, he still felt the need to list dozens of collaborators at the beginning of the book -- not to mention the well known falling out between Wolfram and Matthew Cook, who was reponsible for almost all of the work on rule 110, the most interesting discovery in ANKOS.
  • ummm, that'd be FARNSWORTH....see first sentence of the article ...
  • by EricBoyd (532608)
    This is almost certainly true. The days where one human could contain enough of our knowledge in order to make a technologically *useful* advance in that knowledge, in a short period of time, are long over.

    Sure, one guy might have an idea, but it would take him years to get all the peices together - just determining if it's gonna work or not! (let alone actually manufacturing it, etc.).

    Now, there are places where a good idea can make a difference immediatly - the internet being one of them. But even there, getting people to look at it requires resources...

    Websuring done right! StumbleUpon [stumbleupon.com]
    • "This is almost certainly true. The days where one human could contain enough of our knowledge in order to make a technologically *useful* advance in that knowledge, in a short period of time, are long over."

      Um, that has been the case since before Thomas Edison. Pretty much everything he came up with took years to develop. And he wasn't working alone; he had a team working with him.

      Single inventers can still invent, but it never was an easy process.

  • yea right.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by rootlocus (82271)
    "...the role of the lone inventor is over"

    Tell that to Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Bram Moolenaar, etc etc... The role of the lone inventor is still very much alive when it comes to open source software...
    • If we all relied purely on the inventions of Linus Torvalds we'd have a cool piece of software that booted up and did sweet f-all... It would also be much more primitive than it currently is.

      Linux (GNU/Linux???) is a shining example of collaborative invention. It is absolutely not an example of a lone inventor, you've been reading too much ZDnet my friend...

    • Re:yea right.. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bentini (161979) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:53PM (#3589287)
      As far as I can tell, these people have, respectively "invented" Linux, Perl and Vim, which are respectively marginal improvements (in certain senses) of UNIX, AWK, and ed/sed. They all at least have various philosophical similarities to what I have described as their predecessors.

      These three inventions were all made by Bell Labs. Bell Labs was supported only by the telephone monopoly, aka the biggest corporation in the world. I'd say that that is a far cry from a "lone inventor." What it once took a genius years to do, it eventually takes anyone no time at all. You understand the laws of motion (probably) and gravity, which is more than can be said of anyone living in the 12th Century. You can create new applications of those problems, but that doesn't make you the inventor of them. Even if you recast them and re-write them.

      • Lonely investors backed by a huge corporation. Bell Labs couldn't have done squat without ritchie and co. It was not a "targeted" invention. It just happens because someone did it.

        The fact that these people worked at Bell is not surprising, since in their field it was an obvious choice to be working for Bell or some other few companies.

        Joe Farmer would not have invented this one. Someone in the field had to do it, and these people had jobs.
      • AWK was created by three people, Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan; they happened to do this at Bell Labs.

        reference [cam.ac.uk]

        Ed was in fact based on an earlier program QED, written at Berkeley by Butler Lampson and Peter Deutsch. And ed itself was written by Ken Thompson.

        reference [bell-labs.com]

        UNIX, I will grant you, was designed by a 'division of bell labs'. But really, one out of three? That's a pretty low accuracy rate. I guess if you sound authoritative enough people will believe and mod up.

        The names behind ed/qed and awk are some of the most recognized forces behind early development of computing systems. I mean, even the _article_ about qed was written by Dennis Ritchie. Perhaps not all _lone_ inventors, but there's not much difference for practical purposes between three and one.

        Just because some things were created by people working for bell labs doesn't mean that they were created by the telephone monopoly.

        • But really, one out of three?

          Wow, I haven't been flamed for a while. Thanks for the opportunity. AWK was designed by people at Bell Labs. That counts. As was UNIX. That counts. That is two, in and of itself. These people didn't just happen to be working by themselves in the same building. They were bouncing the ideas off of everyone in their department, no doubt. That lunch table must have been exciting.

          I will admit that I had not remembered qed, and I gracefully cede that point.

          In reference to your point that "there's not much difference ... between three and one." I obviously disagree. There is a difference between one student working on his own to make a kernel that he wants to use and three people working in the context of a department where they are creating a whole new system as a group, even if each individual piece was made separately. That's not a lone inventor, that's modularization.

          • Ok, I guess I went somewhat overboard; sorry about that.

            The point I was trying to make though (and hopefully I will present it in a less heated tone here) is that not much is truly created by a large corporation. You said that all these things were invented by Bell, the telephone monopoly. While it certainly can't be said that you are lying, I was just trying to point out that when you go look at the details, these things were just created by a bunch of individuals who had a neat idea, and happened to be in a position to implement it.

            It is certainly true that they had bell's labs, resources, and the right environment. But I think this is different than really being created by a large company. There was no committee of faceless software engineers designing a specification before dozens of teams of programmers sat down and each implemented components which were then assembled. It was just a few people coding.

            And you are right that there is a difference between one and three. I just think that the difference is nothing compared to the difference between either and 100, or whatever you might find behind the design team of a behemoth like microsoft word, which is the sort of thing that I envision when someone says that software was created by some company.

            In fact I suspect even UNIX doesn't fall into this second category; I just don't know much about the details of its early creation.

            I'm also not trying to claim that vi/linux/etc are original ideas, and neither are the three you cited, I would think. They're all solidly engineered programs, based on ideas that were not new then. I'm not even sure that the age of the lone inventor in its really idealized form (person in lab, no outside resources, no funding pressure, revolutionizing some field, etc) ever existed, but I certainly don't know my history of science well enough to debate that point.

            But the era of people coming up with neat ideas (even if they're evolutions of older ideas) and happening to be in a position to have the resources to implement them, and doing so, in my opinion did exist, and probably still does.

            I don't think it can be argued that the ideas behind UNIX/ed/awk became tied to bell labs. In fact, probably the only people who think of Bell labs when they look at, say, linux, probably have either been around for a while, or do a lot of unnecessary reading (me). So these people created or evolved ideas that moved out of the domain of the corporation that funded them, which is certainly something.
        • Ed was in fact based on an earlier program QED, written at Berkeley by Butler Lampson and Peter Deutsch. And ed itself was written by Ken Thompson.

          That is irrelevant for a number of reasons, first all the UNIX guys were employed by Bell labs and had the resources of the lab there to assist them when they needed it. Without the computer they would not have done any programming at all - and in those days a computer cost $250K +++ which was a lot of money then.

          Moreover Ed did not invent the concept of an editor, it was no more than an implementation of what had been a well established concept for ten years or more. It may look today what someone would produce as a prototype, but even then it was not novel.

          There probably never was a true age of the lone inventor. Even Stephenson (1st commercial steam engine, winner of the Rainhill trials) had a large support staff. Edison invented a few things on his own but was much more effective after he set up his research lab.

          Hopefully the age of the lone inventor is over, if someone has the talent and imagination they should be able to find funding today. At the very least there is the Internet which provides an unprecedented support network.

          The lone inventor ideal is pretty much like the ideal of the 'amateur athlete' which really boils down to a pretty snobish view that sports should be reserved for the elite classes rich enough not to have to work for a living.

          There is certainly a sense in which there might be a return of the 'lone' developer. Whereas doing cutting edge research used to be largely restricted to people with access to first rate academic libraries and lab facities the low cost of computers and the Web mean that the institution you are at counts for much less. And windfall profits from dotcom IPOs mean that quite a few folk can choose to give up the day job.

          Even so, most people who are inventive would prefer to have the resorces available to them as the Chief Scientist or CTO of an Internet startup than try to do it absolutely on their own.

      • This notion has existed in Japan (and perhaps other parts of Asia) for some time. I refer to it as the Manjusri Effect in an upcoming column here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/shukan-st/articles/ . Fair warning: should be avoided by people who have no interest in the FIFA World Cup which will commence very soon. "Manjusri Effect" is taken from the proverb: "if three people put their heads together they will generate the wisdom of Manjusri" (the Buddhist deity of Omniscience). The related webpage noted in the article is here (under construction): http://www.issho.org/tl/ourmessages-fifa2002.html
      • As far as I can tell, these people have, respectively "invented" Linux, Perl and Vim, which are respectively marginal improvements (in certain senses) of UNIX, AWK, and ed/sed.

        I'd argue that Perl is a much greater leap than the other two. Linux basically is just an Open Source version of UNIX (though I know it pains many young 'uns to admit this), and vim is vi with some extra features. But Perl was fundamentally new in many ways, unless you want to get into one of those "all books only have seven plots" discussions.

        Of course while Perl may have initially been created by Larry Wall, dozens and dozens of people have had a hand in it since then.
    • "...the role of the lone inventor is over" Tell that to Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Bram Moolenaar, etc etc... The role of the lone inventor is still very much alive when it comes to open source software...

      In what way is Linux an invention? If anybody invented Linux it was Ken Thompson when he invented UNIX, and even that is giving too much credit to Ken because UNIX borrowed many concepts from other systems.

      Ken Thompson works for AT&T.

      • This, "he is not and inventor because . . . ", or "she truly was an inventor because . . " issue is coming up over and over and it points to a rhetorical fault in the original article that is so huge that it makes me question whether the author has a proper background in basic composition skills.
        WTF is an inventor? This is an essential element of the author's topic that can have numerous meanings and the author never clarified what the term meant in the context of the essay. Had it been a piece of fiction, I would overlook this, but the paper is clearly intended to be read as an essay based on research.
        He gets a C minus and I'll allow a re-write in the next week, but he can only go up one letter grade if he successfully completes the re-write and has it published in the New Yorker.
        And Filo Farnsworth, please! That's one particularly weak example to be drawing such an enormous and vaguely stated conclusion from. I'd like to see Farraday and Bell's achievments belittled as well if the goal is to simply lash out at the notion of technical creativity. But if you're going to go that far, perhaps you ought to read a bit of Nietzche and Sartre and get a better feeling for the Nihilist tone.
    • "...the role of the lone inventor is over"
      Tell that to Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Bram Moolenaar, etc etc...
      What would Linus have done without standing on the shoulders of the original inventors of UNIX (a list would be too long) and the GNU project ?
      What would Larry have done without standing on the shoulders of Kernighan and Ritchie [bell-labs.com] (for C), Stephen Bourne [ualberta.ca] (for bourne shell) and Bill Joy [pdx.edu] (for C shell) ?
      What would Bram have done without standing on the shoulders of Bill Joy [pdx.edu] (again, for original vi) ?

      Software is the most proeminent example of a field where invention results of an incremental and collaborative process. There are brilliant individuals, but they are definitely not "lone inventors" - letting aside the fact that Kernighan, Ritchie, Bourne and Joy were all working in the Bell Labs... ;-)
  • by spd_rcr (537511) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:12PM (#3589127) Homepage
    my dad has developed & built a number of successful inventions/innovations that have gone on to spawn businesses & corporations. the lone person model can work quite well.
    www.karadon.com (an invention/corporation that was built from an idea facet of one of his previous successful inventions)
    www.geocities.com/spdrcrn1tr0/prototy pes.html
    not to say i haven't developed a number of items as well. screw the corporations, do it yourself
  • by SHiFTY1000 (522432) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:13PM (#3589134) Homepage
    As long as there are tools and imagination, there will be inventors... Anyone remember the guy with the wind-up radio for the third world? A guy called Trevor Bayliss had the idea watching TV about how batteries in Africa cost a month's wages.... So he built a prototype in his garage and was eventually successful. Source here http://www.engineerguy.com/comm/2574.ht m I think lone inventors will always be around, but corporations will determine whether they can make a financial success out of their idea.
    • Fscking Trevor Bayliss. In a previous life an ill fated attempt to make a startup ended up with me being on various mailing lists for inventors. These people idolised Trevor Bayliss, but no mention was ever made of the guy (whose name I have forgotten) who decided Trevor was on to a good thing and went through all the investment, hassle and risk necessary to make Baygen itself profitable.

      James Dyson too, idolised. Let alone the fact that designing a better vacuum cleaner nearly cost the guy his sanity.

      No, inventing, fsck it. Risk absolutely everything you have - money, house, marriage, friends, sanity - for a one in 100,000 chance of "the big time".

      Poor inventors. Very tired, very unloved and more likely than most of us to die pennyless.

      Dave
  • Ha (Score:4, Insightful)

    by The Cat (19816) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:15PM (#3589140)
    Absolute horsefeathers.

    Big corporations don't invent anything, and the worst place in the world for an inventive, brilliant, highly intelligent and competent person (like an inventor) is a stultifying, closed-minded, skeptical, gray, dull bureaucracy (like a big corporation). Nothing will take the joy out of invention like having to appease a bunch of self-serving arrogant skeptics.

    The days of the lone (or small group of)
    inventor(s) is just beginning. What about Linux, for example? Come on. This can't be serious.

    The day we hand over the responsibility for progress to middle management is the day we better start preparing for a stagnant society.
    • Re:Ha (Score:3, Informative)

      Big corporations don't invent anything,

      True enough. Inventions occur through individuals solving problems.

      and the worst place in the world for an inventive, brilliant, highly intelligent and competent person (like an inventor) is a stultifying, closed-minded, skeptical, gray, dull bureaucracy (like a big corporation).... What about Linux, for example? Come on. This can't be serious.

      Yes, what about Linux? Linux is a good example of why your argument is wrong. Linux is not an invention - in fact it is a copy of an invention that occurred in a very large company.

      You are making a grave error if you think all large corporations are gray, dull bureaucracies. Many large corporations in fact supply wonderful environments that spawn incredible creativity and technological progress by their employees. AT&T, for example - Bell Labs (transistor, laser, Information Science, UNIX etc. is a classic example of a corporate environment that was successful in spawning innovation). Other companies have gone through periods where they have succesfully fostered great creativity - DuPont and it's development of synthtic fibers, Texas Instruments and IC's, and so on.

      The fact is that good corporations realize that invention can be a great contributor to their growth, and some of them actually grow through that route.

      Oh, and individuals often have families to raise, so that a steady wage while they are doing their inventing can look pretty good.

      • by The Cat (19816)
        Linux is not an invention

        Really? Think it would have happened if it had to be run past middle management and had a "business case" made for it? Free hint: no. What was there prior to Linux that would qualify as its equivalent? If nothing, then it is an invention.

        You are making a grave error if you think all large corporations are gray, dull bureaucracies. Many large corporations in fact supply wonderful environments that spawn incredible creativity and technological progress by their employees.

        Well, goody for them. By and large, corporations exist for the express, exclusive purpose of providing middle managers a paycheck in exchange for obstructing and firing people.

        By the way, most of your examples happened 30 years ago. These days, getting a company to stop hoarding money long enough to actually make progress at anything is the exception at best.

        a steady wage while they are doing their inventing

        That's even funnier than the article. What "steady wage?" You're kidding, right? Hundreds of thousands of people are being laid off every year, most for nothing more than doing a good job.
        • By the way, most of your examples happened 30 years ago. These days, getting a company to stop hoarding money long enough to actually make progress at anything is the exception at best.

          You've clearly got selective vision here. IBM has made tremendous strides in semiconductors and magnetic storage over the past several years. Bell Labs continues to come up with chips that improve the quality of digital phone conversations (eliminating the "lag" and "echo" on overseas connections). Pharmaceutical companies continue to generate some impressive innovations in drugs to treat cancer, diabetes, aids, etc.

          That's even funnier than the article. What "steady wage?" You're kidding, right? Hundreds of thousands of people are being laid off every year, most for nothing more than doing a good job.

          And unemployment continues to be at the lowest historical level coming out of a recession.

          Given your obvious bias, you're really lacking in credibility here.
          • by The Cat (19816)
            IBM, Bell Labs and the pharmaceutical companies.. i.e. the exceptions.

            Notice how every single reply uses the same two examples?

            Mid-size employer Inc. doesn't invent things, and they certainly don't allow their employees the time or the incentive to either.

            And unemployment continues to be at the lowest historical level coming out of a recession.

            Tell that to the half-million out of work programmers. The $8.50 an hour grocery store/bookstore/restaurant job doesn't pay the mortgage. Unemployment doesn't count people who have given up looking either.

            Given your obvious bias, you're really lacking in credibility here.

            lol Certainly can't have a *bias* or anything. I never claimed to be objective. I can tell you I have not ONCE seen a "corporate" job where inventiveness or creativity was either encouraged or rewarded.
    • Ridiculous (Score:3, Insightful)

      Your argument is as ridiculous as saying that every single government on Earth is as genocidal as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China or Pol Pot's Cambodia. The head of my CS department was a manager at IBM. He was paid from what I hear about $400,000/year. Based on the kinds of bonuses that he secured for his top subordinates, I would bet good money that he got a lot of innovation and hard work out of them. Bonuses that were frequently in the $17,000 ballpark. He got them bonuses that were higher than what some people make in 1 year in the US. You would have to be pretty foolish to think that people won't bust their asses for cash like that. Good corporations have regulations to make sure that people don't go off in every direction, so that there is a purpose to research. But good corporations will pay whatever they can to ensure that there is financial motivation to bring out the genius in every employee doing the R&D that they can.
    • I agree, but I also disagree.

      I interpreted to author to be stating that big corporations are the best place to grow inventions and bring them to fruition. But not the best place to actually do the inventing.

      As stated in the article, Farnsworth got his big idea while working in a potato field. After forming his idea, the article states he should have gone to work for RCA.

      To me, this makes sense. Yes it is possible to grow your inventions on your own (go it alone), but it is really really hard.

      There are successes. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos (tbd), to name a few. But the combination of inventive genius and business talent is very rare indeed.

      The corporate world is littered with dead companies which have tried to do just that.

      Netscape? Dead and mostly gone.

      Napster? Swallowed by the big boys.

      Linux? Do you think it would be going anywhere without Red Hat, Caldera and other like corporations.

    • What about Linux, for example? Come on. This can't be serious.

      Linux is simply a version of UNIX, and UNIX was created by a large corporation: Bell Labs. It could easily be argued that UNIX would never have been written in the first place, had some brilliant people not been able to work on it full-time. When you have the funding to make something your day job, you can get a lot more done than working late nights and weekends.
  • by sisukapalli1 (471175) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:17PM (#3589152)
    Ask the patent office... Things like one-click patent can be accomplished by single individuals easily.

    S
  • You're saying the Lone Inventors are dead?

    Thanks for spoiling it all Chris!
  • When push comes to shove, all inventions boil down to one individual realizing the solution to a problem. Now it may or may not take a corporation to realize the invention, and bring it to market, but the fact is that teams are made up of individuals.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Farnsworth invented totally electrical TV , not TV. The article also incorrectly states that Baird et al did not get (partly) mechanical TV working when in fact they did, it's just that Farnsworth's system was vastly superior. Of course, it was American media, so they had to distort the truth in bias of Americans.
  • by coupland (160334) <<dchase> <at> <hotmail.com>> on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:22PM (#3589165) Journal
    The free software movement has proven that in order to invent something these days you absolutely need to stand on the shoulders of giants. But it's also proven that this level of collaboration doesn't need to be driven by a lumbering behemoth or the almighty dollar. Innovation and collaborative invention can also be motivated by sheer passion and sharing. This is the article's only major flaw.
    • I wouldn't say the free software movement is about inventing anything at all. Inventiveness is surely involved but many piece of free software are just free implimentations of a non-free product. The GNU manifesto is all about creating Free versions of closed source pieces of software. That is hardly inventing a product. This isn't to say the whole free software sharing is caring paradigm isn't an effective means of collaboration and an efficient way to share ideas. Many computer inventions have come out of well funded commercial or academic projects simply because someone working with these backings can sit around and think of ways to accomplish something. I think Alan Kay is more of an inventor than Linus Torvalds.
      • I wouldn't say the free software movement is about inventing anything at all. Inventiveness is surely involved but many piece of free software are
        just free implimentations of a non-free product. The GNU manifesto is all about creating Free versions of closed source pieces of software. That
        is hardly inventing a product.


        This is true, but one could argue that the GPL is a remarkable invention. It was done by a lone inventor, and it hardly "stood on the shoulders of giants" as the original post implied (he was talking about the software, though). One might say that it stands on the shoulders of the giants who created copyright law--I would say that it's an elegant hack of the system, but, whatever. I think it's a very interesting invention.

  • by catsidhe (454589) <catsidheNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:34PM (#3589211) Homepage
    First you must have an idea. This is almost always the result of one person having a brainwave.

    Second you must have the manufacture/ marketing/ sales etc. This is the bailiwick of larger corporations.

    This has always been the way. Edison made such an impact because with his first small successes he built a corporation which could produce and market other more marginal products. Tesla, on the other hand, had some (literally) world-shattering ideas, but as he didn't have a large corporation of his own, he had to go cap-in-hand to people like Westinghouse and Morgan to get the funding to develop his ideas. (Yes, Tesla did start several companies to develop specific concepts, but they were all small, specific and all failed for one reason or another. If Tesla had had all the resources of Westinghouse at his command, rather than at petition, who knows what toys we would have now?)

    This is not to say that Edison was a better inventor than Tesla (many would argue that Tesla left him in the dust as far as raw imagination and engineering skills went), but Edison had the marketing skills and business sense which enabled him to do more with what he had.

    You will, I think, find this pattern in all revolutionary inventions over the last two-hundred years. The inventor was
    1. working on his own, and used his great idea to build a company around it, (Edison Electric Lights)
    2. working on his own, and made a deal with an existing company to produce and market it (Tesla, Westinghouse and AC generators), or
    3. working as part of a corporation already, and already had the resources available to do something with the idea (Transistors at Bell Labs, just about anything from PARC, etc.)


    You will probably find that the discoverer of the Blue Laser Diode was working with a corporation, and could make a deal with that corporation to produce the diodes. He could not have done it on his own. Similarly with the Clockwork Radio, IIRC the inventor used funds from the UN to start a company to produce these radios.


    • Second you must have the manufacture/ marketing/ sales etc. This is the bailiwick of larger corporations.

      Why must I have these things? To be successful? I think not. The only reason I can see for these (especially marketing) is for other people to profit--and then it is they, not I, who must have them.

      Consider, for example, when I play piano. I do not have a recording contract, there is no marketing, and I don't care. Why? Because I have a darned good time and that's the reason I do it. Now, if someone wanted to make a buck off of my piano playing they'd have to spend a pile on marketing (as anyone who's heard me can attest). They would need the resources of a large corporation, but I don't.

      -- MarkusQ

      • The context was the success of inventions, and how likely it is for an invention to be taken up if one person only had worked on it, versus the resources of a larger company and the baggage entailed.

        I took 'success' to be how much the invention has been used in the real world, and how much influence it has had on people's lives. Tesla's AC generator technology was successful. Everyone who uses electricity from a power plant owes a debt to Tesla -- and to George Westinghouse who financed the development and installation in the first large scale central power plant. Similarly for the electric light bulb, or the Transistor. Other ideas Tesla had, such as wireless transmission of energy, have not been successful; not because they were bad ideas, but because Tesla could not get anyone with enough resources to bring the idea to market to give him enough money.

        Babbage and his Difference Engine is another example. His idea was brilliant. Its execution was excellent, given his resources. That you can read this message is proof that the concept was sound. But. It was not until large organisations -- namely governments -- were convinced that they needed computers were enough resources brought into play.

        My point is, I suppose, that life is not fair. An invention's brilliance is not the only factor in how much of a difference it makes to the world. For a sufficient impact, there must also be a large enough mechanism to develop, market, produce and ship the finished product. In the example of your piano playing (which isn't really relevant, but what the hey) you are absolutely correct that you do not need a large corporation to write new music, or to enjoy doing so. But if no-one else hears that music then it will die with you. Recording and distributing that music requires more resources than any of us have, unless you are using the net to distribute MP3s, and even then it is you and 1 billion other people. You are not likely to be noticed, and hence you are not likely to make any impact on the world, unless you enlist the help of a large organization or company in some way.

        It's not fair, but it's how it is.


        • I took 'success' to be how much the invention has been used in the real world, and how much influence it has had on people's lives.

          Whereas I take success to be how much the invention served the needs of the inventor. People seem to have gotten the idea that lust-for-fame is the mother of invention, but I still hold that necessity is the true source. I invent something because I need it. If the invention removes / fixes / fills the need, it worked.

          Several times over the course of my life I have seen the following story played out:

          1. Someone has a problem
          2. They come up with something to fix the problem
          3. It works
          4. Someone else gets the bright idea that this could be the ticket to wealth and fame.
          5. Half the people involved immediately loose their perpective on life and start chasing adventure capital.
          6. With luck, they don't get any, and everyone goes back to being normal. But often enough, they get some.
          7. Most of the remaining people loose their perspective.
          8. A stock / share / point / royalty scheme that is roughly twice as complicated as the original invention is concocted.
          9. The investors start making demands (you need a type X for this roll, like my buddy Bob here).
          10. With luck, the whole mess colapses under its own weight. But often enough it doesn't.
          11. Marketing sets in. The actual merits of the original invention are lost in sea of lies and stupidity.
          12. By this point, everyone involved has a sucky life. Friendships have been, if not ruined, at least strained to the point of pain and acrimony.
          13. Exponential growth sets in.
          14. I bail out, if I haven't already.
          15. Eventually, KABOOM!
          End result, almost everyone involved is worse off, and older, than they were when it all started. And why? Beats the hell out of me.

          If you want to change the world, find a problem that you care about and can fix with your own resources. Fix it. Repeat as often as you like. That is how the world gets changed.

          -- MarkusQ

          • There's nothing wrong with your perspective to invention, but one thing to note is it appears you're going for the "bleeding heart inventor" approach, which is to say that you don't care if you profit off your invention, which is fine, but when it's introduced to the wider world it's almost certain if that others WILL profit from your idea instead of you. If you don't care fine, but I would think that most

            As for your model of how the world gets changed, I would say you're sorrily simplifying it, and ignoring the impact of organizations on innovation & invention over the past 100 years.

            • There's nothing wrong with your perspective to invention, but one thing to note is it appears you're going for the "bleeding heart inventor" approach, which is to say that you don't care if you profit off your invention, which is fine, but when it's introduced to the wider world it's almost certain if that others WILL profit from your idea instead of you.

              I don't see why this point is so hard for everyone to grasp:

              I profit from an invention when my goals are met.
              There is nothing "bleeding heart" about wanting to meet your goals and not worrying over other people's get rich painfully schemes. Getting sucked into a dream of acquiring "wealth" I don't need by pushing my invention on people who don't want it on its merits and have to be "marketed" to is about as profitable to me as getting hooked on heroin would be. (Which, I might add, is more than a metaphore in some industries.)

              Here is a major clue: life is a blast, if you take the time to live it instead of always trying to "succeed" at near impossible goals that weren't your in the first place.

              As for your model of how the world gets changed, I would say you're sorrily simplifying it, and ignoring the impact of organizations on innovation & invention over the past 100 years.

              The images pumped to us by "the market" would tent to agree with you, but in my personal experience the individuals with a passion for what they are doing come first and then, if they succeed, history is rewritten by whoever has the biggest megaphone. As one friend of mine quiped, he worked seventeen years for the pure joy of doing what he loved, only to becpme "an overnight success" when he finally got funded by people who then made his life hell. When he left the company that he had "founded" to go back to actually enjoying life, the company's story was that he'd "burned out". He couldn't care less.

              -- MarkusQ

              • I recognize that you care only about meeting your own goals. I was just suggesting it's quite possible that others (opportunists) will economically profit off your invention if you don't.
                If you don't care, that's fine.

                As for your second paragraph about "images pumped by the market" telling me what to think, I believe you really haven't read much history....

                • As for your second paragraph about "images pumped by the market" telling me what to think, I believe you really haven't read much history....

                  You would be mistaken. If you recall, the point in question here is:

                  Second you must have the manufacture/ marketing/ sales etc. This is the bailiwick of larger corporations.
                  Looking at history I mostly see ventures carried forward by individuals, small groups, or organizations headed by the same. I also see projects that rose or fell on their merits, rather than on media blitzes and cold calling campaigns. It is possible that in my reading of history I somehow missed the copious references to large corporations with sales and marketing budgets in ancient times. Could you please point them out to me?

                  -- MarkusQ

    • Well there goes my moderations for this discussion, but here we go....

      Am I the only person who thinks in a hundred years people will be having the same conversations about Bill and [Linus|Steve|Richard|Eric], that we're having about Tesla and Edison?
    • working on his own, and used his great idea to build a company around it, (Edison Electric Lights)

      That's not what happened. Edison had been an inventor for ten years before the light bulb, mostly working on improving the telegraph. He had already established several partnerships and corporations. See this chronology [rutgers.edu].


      (His 1875 deal with Jay Gould, $30,000, would be worth roughly $4.5 million today.)

  • Farnsworth RULES!!! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Caractacus Potts (74726) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:43PM (#3589254)

    Farnsworth is a poor example to use for this subject. He DID invent television mostly by himself without the benefit of a large corporation. What he didn't have as an individual was reasonable protection from RCA, whose goal was to monopolize the airwaves at all costs. When they couldn't buy him out, they harassed him with lawsuits and propaganda campaigns that repeatedly told people that RCA brought them TV. The real problem with lone inventors is that "those who have the gold make the rules". Few people, until recently, ever heard the story of Philo Farnsworth.

    Another cool fact about Farnsworth is that he developed a working fusion device, called the Farnsworth fusor. It doesn't even come close to breakeven, but it does produce neutrons consistently.
    • Read "Man of High Fidelity" about Edwin Armstrong, inventor of broadband FM (the audio system used for television and the FM broadcast band). Sarnoff and RCA did pretty much the same thing to him.

      What's strange here is Sarnoff's thing for "...the best engineers out of the best universities..." considering his own start as a penniless immigrant working as a radio-telegraph operator who just happened to be in the right place at the right time--he was on duty when the Titanic hit the iceburg and stayed on duty around the clock for a day or three relaying messages to, from, and about the sinking and the rescue efforts. Horatio Alger could have written his story. Seems he'd have a greater regard for "rugged individualists", but apparently not.

  • ...the role of the lone inventor is over....getting all of the inovations together requires a (large) corporation.

    I resemble that remark [geocities.com] not to mention some other guys I know [technicalpursuit.com] (search for "javasoft" for some humorous anecdotes).

    Our heroic New Yorker author, with a single leap, bounded right over duos like the Wright Brothers and Atanasoff and Berry [ameslab.gov] as well as small hunting packs like Id Software [idsoftware.com] and small tribal clans like the Seymour Cray 34 [geocities.com].

  • But not in the way that the editorial is saying. No one works alone, period. No one ever has and no one ever will. It's against human nature. We don't like to be alone and we don't trust our selves. We bounce ideas off of our friends, families and even complete strangers. We want feed back, we want to know that we aren't crazy. No one works alone.
  • by Dr_Marvin_Monroe (550052) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @10:52PM (#3589285)

    Lack of a lone inventor is not the problem with the system. There are a lot of people today that can focus on a product and develop it. Having a big staff is not the issue, and sometimes it actually slows development. It's simply that the lone inventor is having trouble getting past the legal flacks of big business who throw down slap suits, suits designed to suck off your cash, suits designed to "discover" all of your company info through the legal process of discovery, suits to hold you in court while they come up with a product, suits to determine where your bank account is so that they could sue you there...... .simply put, truth and justice have almost nothing to do with today's legal system. It's all "time and materials" for the corp. lawyers.

    Corp. Flack to boss: "How many thousand lawyers do you want me to drop on company X today boss?"

    Boss: "Enough so they never come back!...I want those basterds!...send all we got!"

    This method of operation is being used to hunt the "lone inventor," so that disruptive technologies do not emerge to threaten the giants. They have people dedicated to keeping the walls of the empire safe, that's the advantage of being big.

    What Mr. Farnswort lacked was the equivelent legal firepower of the MPAA and RIAA.....could you imagine his lawsuits against RCA?...He would have ended up owning the company....but RCA's lawyers combined with the unfortunate timing of the WW2 means that Mr. Farnsworth is simply out of time to collect on his invention. The big guys stole his stuff and stalled out untill the penalties were meaningless.....sound familiar?

    Now....flash forward to todays system.....all of the corporate giants not only have lawyers that they could para-drop into any courthouse across America, but they have the DMCA to make that "taking" of private invention all "legal"...think of Sonic Blue's situation....being forced (I know that it was reversed later, but principle) to collect information for the MPAA about their customers.....I know, I can hear the cynics, "It's all legal though, gotta be, it was decided in a court of law, right?"

    Until the "lone inventor" can defend himself in court on the merits of the case rather than the cash onhand, he will always be hunted....

    Legal reform for this problem made simple: The loosing party pays ALL legal expenses for ALL parties!....just think...no more nuiscense suits, no more extortion by the big guys because I could get the BEST defense on contingency by the BEST professional who would WANT to help me defend my position! He wins, he charges plaintif company X whatever he wants (huge is fine with me!). Contingency has done wonders for the plaintif lawsuit market, perhaps by making legal defense profitable, we can reverse the trend!

    • Legal reform for this problem made simple: The loosing party pays ALL legal expenses for ALL parties!....just think...no more nuiscense suits, no more extortion by the big guys because I could get the BEST defense on contingency by the BEST professional who would WANT to help me defend my position! He wins, he charges plaintif company X whatever he wants (huge is fine with me!). Contingency has done wonders for the plaintif lawsuit market, perhaps by making legal defense profitable, we can reverse the trend!
      Pray tell, what if you lose? Do you then have to pay yee old MegaCorp's legal bills?
    • Loser pays? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by BarefootClown (267581)

      Quoth the poster:

      Legal reform for this problem made simple: The loosing [sic] party pays ALL legal expenses for ALL parties!....just think...no more nuiscense [sic] suits,

      While this might sound like a good idea on the surface, it would in fact have a devastating effect on the justice system. Even the most seemingly ironclad lawsuit is a crapshoot when taken before a judge. Law is a game of subtleties and minutiae; further more, it is inherently subjective. The mere fact that claims are contested is evidence of this: a case that seems airtight to a plaintiff is scoffed at by the defendant. The judge listens to the arguments as presented by each side (in effect, making the skill of the argument part of the case, for better or for worse), and renders his decision based on his legal training, precedent, his experiences, his ideology (again, for better or for worse), and a whole host of other factors. These factors introduce an element of chance into the proceedings, an element which one cannot discount.

      What does this mean? It means that even the most solid case, argued by the most skilled attorney, can be lost. Now, if you make the loser pay the legal fees for both sides, then you are putting a potential plaintiff in the position of having to pay legal fees on a case that may have been perfectly legitimate, but cursed by bad luck; this problem is compounded by the fact that with the loser paying, both parties would have incentive to hire the best attorney possible: if a better attorney can win the case for you, and you won't have to pay if you win, then it is absolutely to your advantage to hire somebody better. This would inevitably lead to a chilling effect on lawsuits. While that may be viewed as desirable, the chill would extend not just to frivilous suits, but to legitimate suits as well.

      Also consider enforcement: if Microsoft were found to be using code from the Linux kernel, and Linus decided to file suit against Microsoft, how would he be held to pay if he should lose? Would he be required to post funds in advance in escrow, in case he loses? How much should he post? Microsoft has quite a legal team. What if MS decided to hire additional lawyers, or specialists? Perhaps expert witnesses? Should Linus pony up every time they add a staffer to the payroll? If you institute a policy like this, quashing a lawsuit would be as easy as hiring everybody you know. The other options would be to make them pay afterward (what if they don't have the money), or require some sort of legal insurance (equally expensive).

      Short answer is that, while it may seem attractive, having the loser pay the winner's legal fees, it would have dramatic negative consequences. A better idea, perhaps, would be to have a two-tiered system: bring your case before the court, the judge listens to the synopses. If your case fails a "straight-face" test, he can instruct you to pay the defendant's legal fees. If you pass the "straight-face" test, you move on to the trial court, and follow the current rules. This is, in fact, a derivative of the criminal system: before the trial, the prosecution must get an indictment. The indictment forces the prosecution to show some sufficient cause to believe that you committed a crime, before you go to trial. Incidentally, even now, there are some provisions for making the the loser pay the winner's legal fees; legal fees can be included in a judgement. This is just used semi-sparingly, to prevent the effects mentioned above.

      Just for the record, I am not a lawyer, so feel free to correct me anywhere I missed a detail. My dad is, though (Oklahoma, Ohio, and Federal bar (USAF)), and we've discussed this at length. He's disgusted with the legal industry, too. :-)

      • The better system is that used in the UK, where the judge decides on costs seperatly from the case. You can win the case, and have to eat your own costs, or you can loose the case and have to pay for the other side's costs.
  • Let's see... there's Dean Kamen's bio-medicine revolutions, there's Steve, Steve and Mike in the garage working on the Apple I (which lead to the Apple II, and the boilerplate Rich&Famous deal for all involved), there's Larry Wahl, who just gave his wholly concieved invention away, and there's Cisco, and Fed Ex, and...

    There are lots of great inventions spawned by only one or two people working in their spare time, and many of these grow into monolithic companies or worldwide phenomena on the back of that innovation. Many of these (Fed Ex comes to mind) were up against gigantic established players, and succeeded despite it.

    So, the article is corporate self-congratulatory bullshit aimed at those who want to make a run at the establishment. Ignore it.

    SoupIsGood Food
    • revolutions, there's Steve, Steve and Mike in the garage working on the Apple I (which lead to the Apple II, and the boilerplate Rich&Famous deal for all involved)

      Really? I didn't know Steve, Steve and Mike invented the transistor. Oh, they didn't? Well, they invented the computer, that's not too shabby. Still wrong?

      there's Larry Wahl, who just gave his wholly concieved invention away

      Larry Wall invented the programming language?
  • by RyanFenton (230700) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @11:10PM (#3589337)

    1. DSP research and development. I've worked as the student programmer for a 2 person DSP programming company that was actually successful. The owner, an experienced electrical engineer, was an astounding businessman, programmer, and scientist, who invented and ported sound technology to DSPs, and worked with larger companies on a freelance basis to put those DSP's into larger inventions. All while working at home after years in larger businesses. There's plenty of work out there to make the gadgets of future decades possible - but you have to do a lot of inventing and marketing to make it feasible, and be absolutely sure about each step. If you can't honestly explain exactly what you are doing, in a provable manner, to potential customers, everyone will get very frustrated. Be prepared for lots of legal work too. And be prepared for some insane assembly languages for dozens of different parts - for each new part, the language, compiler, and basic philisophy of the unit seems to change. If anyone can develop consistant tools for many parts between companies, and convince people to start using them, they could make lots of money.

    2. Biotech and DNA technology development. Much like #1, but much more massive ammounts of legal work involved. The main thing is that, as much as possible, don't get involved in the touchy intellectual property-oriented areas. Instead, develop the tools which will allow others to study, graph, track, etc, various pieces of Biotech information. The easier and more consistant you can make the process of collecting information and organizing the information for medical researchers, the more they can get done, and hopefully, the more they will use your tools. You'll need to consider the equipment used in various experiments, the nature of the appropriation systems put together for research organizations, and how best to market your product. You can make deals with equipment providers (as long as you're not outright purchased this way), and get job satisfaction out of helping people develop ways to save lives.

    Well... those are the two big ones I can think up off the top of my head. Anyone else with some other relatively open branches of computer science or electrical engineering? Any other great unfilled but potentially profitable needs that haven't really been getting companies attention?

    :^)

    Ryan Fenton
  • by NewtonsLaw (409638) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @11:23PM (#3589372)
    As someone who qualifies as a "lonely inventor" (see my latest invention [aardvark.co.nz]) I can say with some authority that there are occasionally some definite advantages to working outside the huge corporate structure.

    For a start, many of those working within the corporate machine have obtained their position as a result of a splended array of formal qualifications and their academic background.

    Now, while such a background is extremely important, there are occasions when it actually makes the act of "inventing" an awful lot harder.

    Some of the most interesting (and practical) inventions are the result of someone who didn't know (because they hadn't been taught) that something was impossible -- so they just went ahead and did it.

    An unfortunate effect of gaining a depth of knowledge is that one's field of vision is often reduced as a result. Sometimes an important innovation comes as a result of applying knowledge gained in a totally different field to a problem.

    It's been my experience that occasionally the "experts" get so close to the problem that they can't easily see the bigger picture -- a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees so to speak.

    Of course the reality is that if "the lone inventor" does have a good idea, they're then left with no choice but to solicit the help of a large corporation and the resources that such an organization can bring to bear. There's usually a huge void between an idea or a working prototype, and a commercially successful product.

    The inventor and his invention are just one piece of the puzzle.

    Of course (as I well know), the biggest problem faced by many inventors, regardless of the quality or viability of their ideas, is getting the right "big corporation" interested enough to provide those missing pieces.

    I shudder to think about just how many great ideas have never seen the light of day -- not because the inventor couldn't invent, but because (s)he simply had no luck in attracting corporate or investment interest.

    Of course anyone wanting to invest in my X-Jet engine is welcome to contact me :-)
  • ...it was a book review, New Yorker style, not an article.

    As they say on USENET, "watch your attributions"


  • This ran in the New Yorker. Of course it's going to advocate large corporations over individual inventors. Most of their readership are managers.

    If Wired decided that they were going to run an article on inventors, do you think it would glorify the organization or the individual?

  • ...getting all of the inovations together requires a (large) corporation.

    First of all, learn how to spel.

    Second, explain why "large" should be parenthesized.

    Third, please provide an iota of support for your forgone conclusion. Certain large scale enterprises require the cooperation of many individuals. This is neither insightful nor novel. That such cooperative ventures must manefest themselves in the form of a corporation requires a bit more than a leap of faith.

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday May 26, 2002 @11:54PM (#3589450) Homepage
    Farnsworth did have the first electronic television system that worked. He had real problems with camera sensitivity, though. The Farnsworth Image Dissector [aade.com] was a very low sensitivity device. Zworklin's Iconoscope wasn't much better. Light levels around 75,000 lux (!) were required. Today's cameras require 0.5 to 10 lux. Not until the image orthicon (needing around 200 lux), developed around 1940, did cameras become usable.

    So Farnsworth didn't really have a commercializable technology. Worse, he got to the demo level during the Great Depression, a lousy time to get funding for a long-term R&D project.

    It took RCA well over a decade to make television work commercially. It was hard to build a good TV camera tube. [telia.com]

    If you look at the tube designs, you can see the problem. The image dissector had no light integration; only the light falling on the beam spot at the moment of scan was sensed. In other words, only one pixel time's worth of light contributed to the output signal. Farnsworth put in all the amplification he could, with a photomultiplier-like arrangement within the tube. But it wasn't enough.

    Zworklin's Iconoscope integrated light over the whole frame time, but didn't amplify the output within the camera tube. That wasn't enough either.

    It was clear that using both ideas together would help the sensitivity problem, but it took over a decade at RCA and elsewhere to make that work. Both approaches came together in the image orthicon, which was big, expensive, complicated, and required lots of support electronics, but delivered a good image. The sort of thing you'd expect from a big industrial research lab.

  • Um, not wanting to sound too internationalist here, but when will you septics break out of your parochial "we invented everything" state of mind?

    The Berlin Olympics were televised - German Technology.
    About the same time John Logie Baird (a Scot) was conducting test transmissions in the UK - British Technology.

    Come on guys, there's a big wide world out there, open your eyes, you might find there's something outside the USA of interest.
    • Thank goodness! I was waiting for someone to mention John Logie Baird - the REAL father of television, and a fellow Scotsman to boot ;)

      Silly Americans!! Next they'll be claiming they invented golf!! ;)
    • Um, not wanting to sound too internationalist here, but when will you septics break out of your parochial "we invented everything" state of mind?

      Everyone who believes that "we in country X invented such and such" should take a good gander at the Pulitzer Prize winning _Guns, Germs, and Steel_. Great book.

      Anyway, to wit: the ascendancy of any one culture/nation is not based on its ability to invent, but rather on its embracing of those new technologies.

      C//
  • This is in effect a claim for a new evolutionary step- aggregate entities, aka corporations. It's more or less being claimed that human beings can't matter any more because the aggregate entities are so well resourced that they can starve, outmaneuver, and destroy any individual no matter how talented.

    The reason given (or one of them) is that individuals are subject to things like harassing lawsuits and the inability to concentrate on the work of inventing due to distracting influences- which is to some extent self-fulfilling, because you are talking about demands placed on the individual by a governmental judiciary system that is equally available to individuals and aggregates.

    It's a bit like spam: if aggregate entities can have (or evolve) parts (lawyers) solely to attack and cripple the progress of individuals, then this criticism of the 'lone inventor' becomes absolutely unanswerable: by definition it becomes impossible for an individual to stand against aggregates because it's far too simple to immobilize an individual with harassing lawsuits. The only hope for an individual in this situation is to be assimilated or to 'fly under the radar' doing things that may contribute to society but won't be identified as mass market 'inventions' and fought over.

    We may be seeing just this sort of issue arise with Linux and Free Software in general: this type of cooperation among unrelated individuals flew under the radar for some time, and now Microsoft strongly wishes to destroy it, and has taken steps (shared source licensing) to outmaneuver it: it is possible that the only counter to this will be another sort of aggregation, the definition of an 'open source community' inclusively as its own aggregate, and the using of this to fight defensive actions. At the very least, it's become necessary to take on aggregate threat appraisal, as seen on places like Slashdot. If everyone had to make their own judgement call on things like Microsoft's viral shared source licensing, with not everybody equally able to identify dangerous legal points or refer them to a lawyer, how easy would it be to neutralize the entire Free Software movement and place it in a position of awful legal liability and vulnerability? It's been necessary to have a way to get the word out about such things, and this in itself is a form of aggregation.

    I suppose the question to be asking is, what FORM of aggregation is needed? Something like Microsoft or Enron is only one form of aggregate entity. It doesn't have to be that way- in fact it could be just about any way imaginable, because these things are a combination of natural social forces (tempting to get into 'psychohistory' here!) and legal frameworks defining what such an aggregate is and what its goals, needs, defining qualities are.

    This latter cannot be accepted as a fait accompli: the legal frameworks must be subject to re-appraisal in the event that we ended up defining an aggregate entity with about as much future as cancer. It's quite possible to define such a thing with self-destructive, unsustainable qualities, and to set it free and let it rage and burn out. And there's enough of that about: the next level needs to happen, now.

  • by Mandelbrute (308591) on Monday May 27, 2002 @03:03AM (#3589882)
    A new solution may only take a single idea, and many seemingly obvious fixes take an individual to implement it.

    An example is automotive cooling systems. For the majority of the last century to water flowed through in the wrong direction. The cold water came in through where the oil was kept, then the warmed water flowed around the cylinders where everything is hot. Now you want your oil to be nice and warm so that it will flow well and cover everything, and you want the rest of the engine to be kept cool so that pistons don't get stuck and other high temperature nastyness. The reason the water flowed the way it did was simply because that was the way water flowed with gravity feed, but for nearly a century after the water pump was introduced into the system the water flowed the wrong way.

    There is always room for innovation. Even very simple systems can sometimes do with a tweak. The role of the lone inventor is not over, as shown by such people as the guy in Thailand that is making spherical fire extinguisers that you operate by rolling them into a fire.

  • If success is measured in terms of being referenced in a Matt Groening cartoon series, then Farnsworth was no failure!

    Baz
  • by nagora (177841) on Monday May 27, 2002 @06:07AM (#3590182)
    The basic premise of the TV series "Connections" was that no one pulls an invention completly out of their own mind, it's always based on earlier work.

    In fact, Issac Newton summed it up somewhat earlier when he said "If I have seen further than others, it is through standing on the shoulders of giants" (precise wording not guaranteed, statutory rights not affected).

    TWW

  • ARM.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MosesJones (55544) on Monday May 27, 2002 @07:28AM (#3590271) Homepage

    ARM are a smallish bunch of guys based in the UK, they "think" for a living, then sell the ideas to the rest of the industry.

    So IP based companies can work, and leave the heavy lifting to others.

    In the world of outsourcing this is a common model, and ARM are probably the best examples of how to be an ideas company.
  • Sounds like Farnsworth suffered from some mild form of Autism. See this article [wired.com] for more details, but "idiot savant" talents like perfect drawings in childhood and a later inability to understand what the world is doing sound very much like it.

    If so then Farnsworth is a bad example to use for the main point of this essay. Farnsworth's problems are as likely to stem from autism as anything else. Other lone geniuses have managed to create major inventions and use the patent system to do so. The Bell telephone is the obvious example.

    Paul.

  • The problem with "inventions" is that whether something is truly unique, different, etc. is a human judgement call.

    Inventions are not "objective", and so it requires expensive experts to not only understand the technology, but be in a place to influence decisions (such as a judge).

    The murkier something is, the harder it is for raw merit to play the biggest role.

    The best is probably for a small guy to get a patent (requires roughly 8 grand), and hope to license or sell it to a big company for a decent fee.

    However, they have bigger lawyers and deeper pockets, so don't expect to make a killing, because they have more power to keep you from big money than you have to get it.

    IOW, they don't mind much paying you small royalties, but when it comes to multi-millions of dollars, then they will fight tooth and nail for it also.

    Perhaps if Farnsworth settled for a small stream of income from them, he would be fine. However, he probably was chasing big rainbow profits, and that is what possibly made him fail.

    Fuzzy definitions + complexity = death of "lottery patents"
  • (* But it was too late. Something had died in him. "It's come to the point of choosing whether I want to be a drunk or go crazy," he told his wife. One doctor prescribed chloral hydrate, which destroyed his appetite and left him dangerously thin. *)

    Sounds like the doctor had discovered a weight-loss remedy. I find that far more useful than television. Watching television makes you fat; so something is needed to counteract that. Sounds like the perfect co-business. It would be like McAffee having a virus creation and distribution branch.

    (* Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man. *)

    He probably would have been bored and unfulfilled being just another cubicle dweller in the beurocracy of RCA. He does *not* sound like the kind of person who likes beurocracies.

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