Who should own the patent for the steam engine? Who should we honor? What name should schoolchildren memorize in class? Watt? Newcomen? The authors of the engineering books they both read? His parents? The serendipities?
It was actually the ecosystem. For that reason, many inventions have had almost simultaneous inventors throughout the world. We can read some examples in this book by Kevin Kelly : What Technology Wants . Thus, 6 different people invented or discovered the thermometer. Five different people invented the electric telegraph. Three people, the hypodermic needle. Two, natural selection.
21 inventors for the light bulb
The most surprising case is that of the light bulb, which was invented independently by 21 people . In other words, Edison did not invent the light bulb. At least 21 people did, who are credited with having designed or perfected incandescent light bulbs in the late 1870s.
In 1922, William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas of Columbia University compiled a list of 148 cases of almost simultaneous inventions by more than one person, which included photography, the telescope, and the typewriter.
Many of these people were connected to each other, but others lived in different countries and had no knowledge of each other’s existence. If we go further back in time, it is even clearer, because we find that the boomerang, the blowpipe and the pyramids were invented independently on different continents, just like agriculture.
All this tells us that the discoveries and inventions appeared in certain ecosystems , at certain times, if certain circumstances arose. It didn’t matter who lived in that society. The important thing was the circumstances. In other words, it was impossible that light bulbs were not invented in the 1870s. Light bulbs were inevitable. The technologies on which the bulbs were based had reached such a point that it was normal for them to appear, regardless of who was there to achieve it.
If we took a time machine to kill all the inventors of the past, the history of technology would not change much . More or less we would have arrived at the same things that we have now, although there were certain offsets, of course.
However, we resist believing that this is so because we do not understand the number of people in the world, the vast number of brains that are interacting with each other in complex ways, inserted in an ecosystem full of memes.
So, starting from the basis that ideas are forged in complex and fortuitous ways, that they are born inconcretely, that they are INEVITABLE, why do we continue without questioning that desire to enthrone an Author? Because we need it. Undoubtedly, all this is suspiciously reminiscent of the human being’s need to find an Author, a Creator of the world and of everything that is contained in it. The Author, the inventor, the revolutionary, Rosa Parks … they are all just a secular version of God. A simple and affordable explanation to solve the uncertainty that comes from accepting that we have no control over the story, that nobody does, and that everything looks more like a huge billiard table with trillions of balls chaotically colliding with each other: