Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


edison-tesla_fe

Nikola Tesla tears up his contract in the 2012 show The Men Who Built America. (SCREENSHOT: THE HISTORY CHANNEL)

Nikola Tesla and the Myth of the Lone Inventor

• April 03, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Nikola Tesla tears up his contract in the 2012 show The Men Who Built America. (SCREENSHOT: THE HISTORY CHANNEL)

We like our inventors to be lone geniuses, but it’s almost always the case that today’s giant is standing on the shoulders of yesterday’s.

This post is based on a talk I gave at South by Southwest and a version of it first appeared at BBC Future.

Who invented the Internet?

To answer that seemingly simple question you basically have two options: you can go on for hours explaining the hundreds of people and institutions that contributed crucial advancements to the way that the Internet operates, or you can just say Vint Cerf. Or Leonard Kleinrock. Or Tim Berners-Lee.

People have been fighting for decades over who invented the Net. Some will tell you that Vint Cerf’s work on its underlying protocols—TCP/IP—was its true beginning. Others will go back further in history and tell you that Leonard Kleinrock’s work on queuing theory was the real birth. Some may scoff at the idea of conflating the Web and the Internet by suggesting Tim Berners-Lee, but in multiple-choice tests of the future the “right” answer will be determined by the next hundred years of how historians choose to tell that story.

The truth is that history, like innovation, is messy. What starts as an idea for a product, or a service, or an institution is dependent upon thousands of forces seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized, historical and contemporary. In reality, the Internet was invented by thousands of people. To buy into the other version of history means you buy into the “myth of the lone inventor”—an idea that creates simple, even entertaining narratives, but which does a great disservice to the thousands of people who have invented our modern world.

Nowhere is the perpetuation of this myth greater than in the work of the late Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla—the man, we are often told, who invented everything from radar to radio and domestic electricity supplies. The fanaticism surrounding Nikola Tesla has reached fever pitch in recent months, driven by new films, endless blog posts and a high-profile effort to fund a museum dedicated to the legendary inventor. But the byproduct of this effort to reposition Tesla in the scientific canon has been the creation of many more myths about the man—myths that actually harm our understanding of history and the history of innovation.

T-shirt for sale at TheOatmeal.com

T-shirt for sale at TheOatmeal.com.

Take a Web comic called “Why Nikola Tesla Was The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived,” published last year by a website called The Oatmeal and instantly shared by thousands. The strip, created by Matthew Inman, is an entertaining look at Tesla’s life and shows many of the ways in which he was perhaps smarter, more altruistic, and generally a better human being than his contemporaries.

But a couple of sentences into the comic, the myth begins: “In a time when the majority of the world was still lit by candle power, an electrical system known as alternating current was invented and to this day is what powers every home on the planet. Who do we have to thank for this invention that ushered humanity into a second industrial revolution? Nikola Tesla.”

The problem with this version of history is that Tesla wasn’t the only person working on AC technology. Concurrent with Tesla’s major breakthroughs in AC in the mid-1880s, an Italian inventor named Galileo Ferraris developed a similar system—something we can likely chalk up to simultaneous invention.

Charles Bradley was another inventor working on AC and was granted patents for his work on both two-phase and three-phase systems. Friedrich Haselwander worked on AC in Germany and is sometimes credited as the first to use a three-phase system in 1887. William Stanley and Elihu Thomson would also contribute immensely to the work of alternating current technologies during this time. The list goes on and on.

Tesla’s development of AC is undoubtedly important for the evolution of our modern electrical world. But to pretend that he alone invented this system strikes me as absurd.

It is the same story with radar. To buy into the idea that Tesla was the inventor of radar is to discount the contribution of German physicist Heinrich Hertz, wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, and German inventor Christian Hulsmeyer, who all did work in the area before Tesla. It also disregards Robert Watson Watt and the many others who refined the system after Tesla’s work.

Ditto radio transmission.

Tesla fanatics may interpret my argument as saying that he does not deserve recognition for his vital work—and nothing could be further from the truth. Tesla made countless important contributions to the world, but he was not the sole “inventor” of these technologies. Many people did work in these areas before Tesla, just as many people contributed to them long after he died.

You may think that arguing over how much credit a 19th-century inventor deserves for his work is esoteric and of no relevance to the modern world. But the question of who is the sole inventor of something is an important question. So important that it can net you millions of dollars.

Tablet devices in Stanley Kubrick's 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Tablet devices in Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Last April, a judge in California ordered electronics giant Samsung to pay $1 billion to iPad maker Apple. The California firm had sued Samsung on the grounds that it had copied the look and overall feel of the iPhone and iPad. Since the original judgment, that $1 billion figure has been cut in half, but the central question remains: Who invented the iPad?

Here, the court proceedings offered up some fascinating examples. Samsung, for example, cited a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which shows two men watching BBC 12 on devices that could very well be interpreted as iPads. Samsung cited this scene in court as prior art that would invalidate Apple’s patents on what amounts to patenting an interactive, rectangular media-viewing device.

Back in 2011, the judge in the case also made reference to a 1994 video produced by Knight Ridder, which also showed an iPad-like device that he thought might invalidate the Apple patent.

Tablet demonstration in a 1994 Knight-Ridder concept video

Tablet demonstration in a 1994 Knight-Ridder concept video.

Regardless of the outcome—which was wrapped up in the vagaries of patent law—the case highlights the essence of innovation. It rarely happens in isolation, instead drawing on an extremely complex mix of authors and ideas, with everyone taking from everyone else.

Yet, still we like to keep our narratives simple. In part, this is because of the commercialization of history. Messy stories with multiple protagonists are no good for selling T-shirts, telling a five-minute story squeezed in between TV ads, or creating an engaging blog post or comic.

However, I believe we also cling to the idea of the lone inventor because it feeds into the idea that any of us can do the same. We like to imagine that an inventor exists outside of the cultural and institutional forces that facilitate innovation. If people would simply try harder—pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get better ideas—they could change the world.

But this is a poor understanding of history that does the future no favors. To allow people to truly understand how messy the history of innovation and invention really are we need to kill the myth of the lone inventor and celebrate the rich diversity of people who bring an invention into being.

And it seems others agree. On March 18th, five engineers that helped to create the Internet were awarded the first ever Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The £1 million prize was shared between Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Bob Kahn, and Vint Cerf, who developed the protocols that underpin the Internet; Louis Pouzin, whose research influenced Kahn and Cerf’s work; and Marc Andreessen, the co-creator of the world’s first Web browser.

This kind of recognition is an important step toward answering the question of who invented the Internet. It’s also a step toward quashing the myth of the lone inventor, and celebrating the rich tapestry of characters behind most inventions and the slow gradual process that brings them into being.

It is an idea that I believe Tesla would have approved of.

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result,” he wrote in 1900. “He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.