Samuel F. B. Morse didn’t invent the telegraph. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone. Thomas Edison invented neither the light bulb nor the movie camera. Guglielmo Marconi most assuredly didn’t invent radio. Neither Philo Farnsworth nor Vladimir Zworykin invented television. The integrated circuit’s provenance remains in simmering dispute between Jack Kilby fans and Robert Noyce supporters. As for the Internet and its ubiquitous browser, let’s just say that-as with these other technological “breakthroughs”-“publicity,” “priority,” and “patent” are often mutually exclusive.
When it comes to invention, Henry Ford-who, of course, invented neither the automobile nor the mass-production line-was right: history is indeed bunk. The wrenched context and sheer dishonesty of most sagas of “heroic” inventors and their profitable progeny brings to mind science historian Otto Neugebauer’s astutely cynical observation that “The common belief that we gain historical perspective’ with increasing distance seems to me to utterly misrepresent the actual situation. What we gain is merely confidence in generalization that we would never dare to make if we had access to the real wealth of contemporary evidence.”
Amen. If you want to learn about the importance of “invention” over the past 300 years, talk to the lawyers. If you want to hear about the importance of “innovation,” however, talk to anyone else. The history of invention is the story of litigation, not innovation. Don’t confuse them.
That’s why I can’t help but sigh when I read about a coming renaissance in invention or a technology-driven resurgence of talented amateur/multidisciplinary professional inventors. The role of invention in innovation is vastly overblown. Do we think it’s a mere accident of history that so many scientific discoveries or technical inventions emerge simultaneously from several different laboratories? Is anyone shocked anymore when the so-called original inventor wins at the patent office but loses in the marketplace?
The simple truth is that the economics of invention are profoundly different from the economics of innovation. Being “first to file” has nothing to do with being first to market. Being first to market has nothing to do with being first to profitability. Being first to profitability-and this is key!-has virtually nothing to do with how quickly, deeply, and ubiquitously an innovation spreads. In other words, there is no meaningful correlation-let alone causality-between a “successful” act of invention and a “successful” marketplace innovation. None.
Why should this surprise us? The marketplace triumphs of “winners” like Edison and Marconi were less a function of inspired inventorship than of ruthless business practice. We shouldn’t confuse the creation of an idea with its commercialization, any more than we should confuse an airplane with an airline or a telephone with a network.