Are Some Inventions Destined To Be Created?

In his article, Malcolm Gladwell tells the history of the telephone and explains the idea of simultaneous discovery

If you google “who invented the telephone,” the first name that pops up is Alexander Graham Bell. However, if he had submitted his patent just a few hours later, this would no longer be the case.

On February 14, 1876, both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray went to the Patent Office to claim the rights to ‘their’ invention. Both had been working on the idea of the telephone for a while, but how could this be? How could both discover the same invention simultaneously and independently?

“This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery — what science historians call “multiples” — turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern… Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington. For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.”

So what does ‘in the air’ mean? It means that some technological shifts are imminent of time. Bell and Gray both lived in the US where telegraph wires were installed. Both realized the shortcomings of the telegraph’s one message per transmission capacity. Both studied from the same materials that proposed ideas of fluid transmission: namely the work of Philipp Reis. Knowing this, the idea of multiples doesn’t seem as outrageous — even though this case was exceptional because of the discoveries were practically synchronous.

“We’re reluctant to believe that great discoveries are in the air. We want to believe that great discoveries are in our heads — and to each party in the multiple the presence of the other party is invariably cause for suspicion.”

The idea of multiples does not by any means discredit the inventor’s creativity. The term ‘multiple’ is rather a tool to further comprehend where good ideas come from. It also puts the idea of innovation into a macroevolutionary perspective. If Bell hadn’t discovered the telephone, our society would still have evolved to create a similar device, if not a device exactly like it. Society is like a stream. It continually flows and shifts, but rarely do any single disturbances change its course. ✧

We are constantly evolving the definition of innovation, but we rarely acknowledge how innovation has defined us. In fact, there is one invention that scientists argue is the reason for the evolution of the genus homo. Find out more in the installment of “8 Stories That Will Make You Rethink Innovation.”