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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Wikipedia says the well-known phrase “Beam me up, Scotty,” was never said on television or in the movies. It did, however, become the title of James Doohan’s autobiography. Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again, Sam,” Mark Twain never said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” Niccolo Machiavelli never said “The ends justify the means,” Cary Grant never said “Judy, Judy, Judy,” Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson,” Murphy did not say “Anything that can go wrong, will,” and Abraham Lincoln never said “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it.” Many think these famous people said these famous things (yes, even the last one), but they didn’t. Did-but-didn’t is often the case with inventions, too. 

The light bulb

Prolific inventor Thomas Edison gets the credit, but British chemist Warren de La Rue lit platinum filaments in a sealed glass bulb seven years before Edison was born. La Rue had solved the scientific challenges, but the cost was too high to become a commercial success and he moved on to something that interested him more: photographing the universe.

The flush toilet

Popular wisdom says it was John Crapper, but he only made improvements to the original, invented two hundred years before Crapper was born. In 1596, John Harrington installed his invention in the palace of Queen Elizabeth. Harrington was later knighted for his service to the throne.

The airplane

Any American can tell you it was bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The French say it was Alberto Santos-Dumont, on a technicality, claiming the Wright Brothers’ craft was aided on lift-off. Still others say it was Clement Adler, Gustave Whitehead, Richard Pearse, Samuel Pierpont, and Karl Jatho.

The telephone

Everyone knows it was Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 – “Watson, come quick!” The day Bell applied for his patent, he was 5th in line. Oberlin professor Elisha Gray applied for a telephone patent the same day but was 39th in line. Some have suggested Patent Office officials were bribed.

The car 

Nikolaus Otto built the first gasoline engine in 1866. Twenty years later, Gottfried Daimler put a smaller version on a bicycle and in 1886 his partner Karl Benz patented his three-wheeled Motorwagen, considered the first true modern automobile. Henry Ford didn’t build his first car until ten years later. In 1913 Ford introduced the assembly line to auto manufacturing – but he didn’t invent that, either. After visiting the slaughterhouses that had invented them forty years earlier, he copied the efficiency of meatpackers’ assembly lines that moved animal carcasses through 80 different procedures without stopping.

The computer

Bill Gates, say some. Charles Babbage, say others, and a few even say Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Ada Lovelace. How about Konrad Zuse, who earned the title “inventor of the modern computer.” Instead of taking credit, he praised the inventions of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.

The drive-thru window

Ask around and most people will tell you McDonald’s invented it. They are wrong. McDonald’s saw no reason to have a drive-thru (the spelling favored by the industry because it’s a shorter word and saves money on signs) until 1975, the same year Burger King decided drive-thru might be a good idea. Wendy’s was the first of the Big Three to add drive-thru windows five years before that. Founder Dave Thomas’ daughter said in an interview that customers had trouble understanding cashiers over the speakers. Fifty years later, people still have trouble understanding cashiers over the speakers (time for a new invention?). Nearly twenty years earlier, the original Jack in the Box in San Diego was drive-thru only. They didn’t invent drive-thru either, but they were the first to use an intercom. In Baldwin Park, California in 1948, the first In-N-Out Burger had a drive-thru window out of necessity – it had no indoor seating and no parking lot. One year earlier, Sheldon “Red” Chaney added a drive-in window to his Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. When the new cross-shaped “Giant Hamburger” sign was delivered, it was too tall. To keep it from touching the power lines, Red sawed the “er” off the bottom.

Take a closer look at most inventions and you will see the iterative process at work

Each successive stage is built upon things invented by others and then improved and refined. As is often the case, the person credited with an invention was the one who first filed for a patent and/or made the invention practical. The two-pronged lesson is this: technology develops cumulatively rather than in isolated acts and finds most of its uses after being invented.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

That’s the saying we all know and in some cases it’s actually true. What happens most of the time, though, is that inventions are developed by people driven by curiosity and a love of tinkering. A good example is the 3M scientist who was trying to develop a super-strong adhesive and accidentally created an adhesive that was reusable and pressure sensitive. Dr Spencer Silver, the inventor, promoted his adhesive without success until a colleague convinced him it would make an excellent bookmark if attached to a piece of paper. The only scrap paper in the lab was yellow and you know the rest.

Inventors have to find applications for their products

Thomas Edison produced an early marketing brochure that promoted his new “phonograph” as useful for preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for the blind, teaching elocution, and announcing clock time. In 1889, Louis Glass and William Arnold found another use. They added a coin mechanism to a phonograph so people could put a nickel in the slot and hear recorded music. Their nickelodeon was the first jukebox. Instead of speakers, people listened through what looked like stethoscopes with very long tubes. In its first month, it collected 20,000 nickels, the equivalent of nearly $30,000 today. When it became a national sensation, Edison objected to the vulgar debasement of his serious invention. 

By the way, jukebox was derived from the Gullah word meaning disorderly, rowdy, and wicked. 

Only after an invention had been in use for quite some time did people come to feel they “needed” it

  • In 1876, Western Union concluded “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” 
  • In 1878, the British Post Office said “Americans have need of the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”
  • In 1933, Boeing said of their new ten-passenger airplane, “There will never be a bigger plane built.”
  • In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” 
  • In 1946, 20th Century Fox movie producer Darryl Zanuck said ”Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
  • In 1957, the Editor of Prentice Hall business books said “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
  • In 1959, IBM again looked into the future, this time telling the eventual founders of Xerox that “The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most.”
  • In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp, said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” 
  • In 1992, Intel CEO Andy Grove said “The idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is a ‘pipe dream driven by greed.’”
  • In 2003, Steve Jobs told Rolling Stone “The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.”
  • In 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”


No one can see the future

Not Steve or Andy or IBM or The Psychic Twins or Sidney Omarr or Dionne Warwick or the Oracle of Delphi or Nostradamus (my high school nickname). No one can see what’s coming around the corner, but the smartest ones get closer to it so they will be among the first to see what’s coming next.

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