Virulent Word of Mouse

February 7, 2004

Why inventors are not famous

Filed under: Conundrums in technical progress and economic growth,Essays — Shane Greenstein @ 10:01 pm

Most inventors are anonymous to the general public. If you don’t believe that, read Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions that Shaped the World by Stephen Van Dulken (New York University Press, 2002). I just did. I make my living studying high-tech firms, and I could not name half of these inventors before reading about them. I tested most of my colleagues, who are professors. They did worse than I did. Many of the inventors are candidates for the final answer on the Jeopardy game show.

This anonymity says something about inventors and the lack of public recognition accorded inventive acts. With rare exception, fame and invention do not mix. Making it onto a top 10 list is often the pinnacle of accomplishment and aspiration, even for inventions that change the world.

So, why aren’t inventors famous?

Popular culture

There are different types of fame and recognition. Let’s start with the most superficial: pop culture. First, and quite bluntly, popular culture does not care about invention.Take a pop song.The prevailing theme of a pop song is not invention, except when invention involves love, poetry, and angst, which it usually does- n’t. For example, inventors do not show up in pop songs, but scientists, such as Einstein, do. For a variety of reasons, some scientists have achieved a romantic stature equal to the lonely genius/artist.

Consider Galileo in a song by the Indigo Girls. Yes, we’re talking about that Galileo, the Italian genius who had an epic disagreement with the pope about the movement of the planets. As far as pop crooners go, the Indigo Girls are about as thoughtful as it gets. Yet, it takes an epic battle to bring Galileo to the level of poetic/ romantic archetype.

That explains why in the 100 years since the Wright brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk, there have been more songs written about the mythical Icarus.

Don’t get me wrong; Orville and Wilbur achieved a certain type of immortality and fame:They have a place in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and a couple of paragraphs in every history book. It is just different from Marilyn Monroe’s or Joe DiMaggio’s fame; both made it into pop songs (written by Elton John, and Simon and Garfunkel).

Professional recognition

Broad fame often eludes inventors for a deeper reason. The act of invention can be difficult to appreciate in its own time. This is both an observation about the technical difficulties in appreciating a new insight and also an observation about the decades it takes to understand the commercial consequences of discovery.

Take the invention of Teflon, the surface coating that revolutionized cooking. You undoubtedly have heard of Teflon, but do you know the name of its inventor? It’s Roy Plunkett.

Plunkett was a hard working research scientist at DuPont. He experimented with complex polymers, erred, and produced a lab accident. True to cliché, the accident crossed serendipity with a prepared mind. After much testing, he discovered that the viscosity of this material exceeded anything created by nature. He filed a patent in 1939.

Here is my point: It took the managers at DuPont decades to migrate Teflon from purely industrial uses and into pots and pans. The stuff was expensive and applications were not, at first, obvious. Even after some French cooks thought of using it for their pans (in the late 1950s), it took years of testing to demonstrate that it was safe. The inventor was long forgotten by the time Teflon became commonplace in the 1970s.

The teams working with Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce on the development of ICs represent a related variant of this situation. For most of their professional lives, the fame of Kilby and Noyce extended to a small circle of engineers who appreciated the ingenuity. By all accounts, both men were inspiring, tops among cognoscenti. They earned the respect, appreciation, and admiration of the few who could understand their true inventiveness.

Don’t get me wrong. Both men also lived long enough to see wide application of their efforts (that is, in calculators and PCs). That at least helped them receive laudatory language in popular technical history books. For example, see how Kilby and Noyce are portrayed in Microchip, by Jeffrey Zygmont (Perseus Publishing, 2002).

Still, their fame never became widespread. Just ask any school kid over the age of 10: They know of the Wright brothers, but have no idea who Kilby or Noyce are, even though the IC was one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

Interviewing inventors

Today, the demands of contemporary media shape fame’s capricious glow. Rather unfairly, it is only a matter of chance that an inventor can give an entertaining interview.That further limits wide exposure.

Consider, for example, James Gosling, who invented Java. He revolutionized network software. He clearly helped humanity and his company. Yet, outside programmer circles, he is not well known.

Why not? Partly because Gosling is who he is. He is bearded, soft spoken, a bit ruffled, and smarter than all but maybe a dozen people on the planet.

There is an interview with him in the film A Brief History of the Internet; Bob Cringely is the interviewer. In the film, Gosling admits that he usually cannot explain to his mother what he does for a living. Fine, but this surely will keep Katie Couric from interviewing him; nor are the Indigo Girls likely to serenade about him soon.

To be fair, Gosling probably could care less. He receives massive amounts of professional respect at conferences and social gatherings. On a day-to-day level, what more could he want?

In other words, if people aspire to be inventors, they can expect hours in a lab for weeks, months, and years on end. For such a dedicated activity, it helps to have a more stable lifestyle and personality than that of, say, the late comedian Andy Kaufman. Yet, such a personality is unlikely to make you telegenic.

Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway Human Transporter (, offers an informative contrast. Articulate and energetic, Kamen has founded a company whose goal–in his own words–is to revolutionize transportation as we know it. Ambitious for his invention, he seems to want as much fame as Orville and Wilbur. He might actually get it because his invention catches the eye.

More to the point, his demonstrations make for entertaining television. Kamen did a stint on Good Morning America, demonstrating the Segway as well as his latest wheelchair, which climbs stairs. Pop singer Peter Gabriel recently started using a Segway at concerts. This is a propitious start on the road to widespread fame.

To be sure, there is something unsettling about an inventor who is this hungry for accolades. In Kamen’s case, he seems almost adolescent in his desire for love and admiration. It also comes close to the type of fame that is bred and nurtured for fortune–or inventor support. This is uncomfortable, because investor funding should flow to the best business case, not necessarily what is demonstrably cool to TV viewers.

To be fair, Kamen is following in famous footsteps. The venerable Thomas Edison was a master of the art of seeking attention. To be sure, Edison also had something to brag about. After all, his labs did develop effective prototypes for the light bulb and phonograph, among the many creations that impressed Edison’s contemporaries.

Fame from fortune

As invention crosses into business, another sort of fame emerges. It goes to inventors who display business acumen. As before, this type of fame usually fails to inspire love songs. Moreover, for a variety of reasons, it often comes with a touch of infamy.

Among this group, Bill Gates is among the most famous inventors on the planet. The truly rare invention at that firm involved figuring out how to usefully package and sell programming tools and languages, as well as branded shrink-wrapped applications, then do both on a large scale. Furthermore, the firm linked those activities to each other. It is easy to forget, but figuring out a viable business like this was quite visionary.

At the same time, many computer science pioneers despise Gates, resenting his wealth and claiming that he made it from commercializing their inventions. In addition, Gate’s defensive contracting behavior during the browser wars solidified his reputation for uncommon selfishness– to the point that he would slow down everybody else’s inventiveness if it served some strategic purpose.

Another person in this category is Michael Dell, though he has not yet earned quite as much scorn. He is famous for instituting a direct model in PCs, one of the most inhospitable commercial environments imaginable for direct selling. A charitable interpretation further lauds Dell’s use of the Web for retailing. Dell made it work in his organization as soon as he could. Dell’s experience and perseverance developed a public face that represents the gold standard in web-based retailing.

Still, Dell does not receive much respect for his inventiveness (except, maybe, among process engineers). It is another example of not appealing to romantic archetypes. Once again, this is a bit unfair. Inventing and perfecting a business process involves loads of experimentation. It simply was not the type done by scientists in a white coat.

Finally, consider Linus Torvald, who is famous for leading Linux development. He is a practitioner of open-source software, a new method for collaborative software development.

Torvald’s situation is quite fascinating. He had no intention of becoming famous. He started with narrow goals related to his own computing needs. He also is the first to admit that he borrowed the legal foundations from others, notably Richard Stallman.

As best as I can tell, today Torvald gets an adrenaline rush from running the whole Linux movement, and some sort of joy from pushing it forward. The professional recognition also does not seem to hurt.

Yet, can this last? Torvald and his buddies do not make much money from their activity. Yet, several groups of programmers– at Red Hat, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and elsewhere–are trying to run businesses employing Linux. If Torvald ever asked for a bit of compensation, what would any of them do? He is so famous, who would risk losing his endorsement?

Is fame overrated?

Fame often arrives late. Broad fame almost always involves a distorted understanding of the true act of invention. Most often, fame is quite limited in scope. It shows up in professional recognition, if at all.

Why does such limited fame motivate inventors? It seems as if most inventors will do their thing for less than a song.

What a mismatch! Society benefits enormously from invention, but the inventors receive only a small reward for their efforts. If lionizing a few inventors in pop song would entice more inventors to show up, then such a tune would be worth hearing.

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