General, History

Don’t be Wrapped Up in Fame

Who has ever heard of Joseph Swan?

He invented the incandescent lightbulb.

What? You thought Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb? Actually, he and Swan worked independently on the project. Swan worked in England and had illuminated his home in the city of Gateshead before Edison learned of Swan’s use of carbonized thread filaments. Edison grabbed the idea and ran with it. Swan even developed an improved cellulose filament that Edison knew to be superior to the bamboo material he finally settled on, but Edison refused to use the improved material.

Because he also had the Sprengel pump (to create a vacuum in the bulb) and a plan for implementing electric lighting across large areas, Edison is often credited for the invention. And Edison was enough of a glory hound that he never led anyone to believe otherwise.

It might not have hurt that Edison’s General Electric Company also bought Swan’s company in the 1880’s and merged its interests with its own.

What about Nikola Tesla?

Among other things, Tesla invented the radio transmitter. You were probably taught that Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio transmitter. That’s what almost all American history textbooks say even though at the time that Marconi “invented” the radio, he did so by flagrantly ripping off seventeen of Tesla’s patents. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court even ruled that Tesla was indeed the inventor of the radio transmitter, but that was in 1943, long after long repetition had awarded the honor to Marconi.

It is Tesla, and not Marconi, to whom we are indebted for the invaluable technology that powers our televisions and our mobile phones, transmits information to both airliners and our computer wifi cards.

Why One and Not the Other?

I could go through an endless list of people who got famous from or got credited for the work of other, perhaps greater minds. Christopher Columbus was not the first European to sail to the Americas. He was just the first to publish the trek. Martin Luther wasn’t the first to protest the excess of the medieval Catholic church. He was just the first to use the printing press to broadcast it. Isaac Newton did not come up with the laws of gravity. He simply refined something one of his rivals had already come up with, and of course, he published it.

The way I see it, there are those who cannot live without credit and fame, and then there are those who do because they can. We innovate and initiate without a desire or need for broad acclaim. We do because we can, because we stand at the intersection of creativity and conviction and think different.

Don’t ever forget that Thomas Edison – he of the phonograph, the mimeograph, the incandescent light bulb – also sunk millions into a complete failure of an idea to pour concrete houses, complete with furnishings and invested a fortune in a DC electrical system that he ultimately replaced with the AC systems we know today.

Be content to be where you are, doing what you’re doing. Change the world around you and if it changes the larger world – great. If others take what you do and make it better, then let them. For every Edison, there is a Swan. For every Marconi, a Tesla.

The measure of a man’s greatness is not that others long to be him, but that HE longs to be him. To be who you are where you are is better than to try to be someone you are not in places you should never try to go.


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