In search of the greatest inventors and technology innovators

In search of the greatest inventors and technology innovatorsIn this section of GeekHistory we put some of the buzzwords into perspective to help you understand and appreciate great inventors and technology innovators.

In the previous article we took a look at a true visionary Jules Verne. Visionaries see what is possible, often before the technology exists to make it real.

The inventors often take visions of others and made them real by proving the concepts in laboratory or by creating the prototype. There are innovators who take a good invention and make it great, transforming the inventions into commercial products

What is the difference between innovation and invention?

There are people like Henry Ford, who spanned multiple categories, who take an invention and develop it into an industry. Let's use Ford as an example to look at the buzzwords.

Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile. German engine designer Karl Friedrich Benz is recognized for the invention of the first automobile. He Benz received a patent for the Benz Patent Motorcar in 1886. His Benz Patent Motorcar powered by an internal combustion engine.

But Benz invented the automobile using the internal combustion engine, which was developed by German engineer Nikolaus August Otto in the 1860s.

Henry Ford didn't invent the assembly line, nor did he invent the concept of an automotive assembly line. Ransom Eli Olds, for whom both the Oldsmobile and REO brands were named, is credited with designing the basic concept of the assembly line. At the Old Motor Works in Detroit he mass produced the Curved Dash Oldsmobile becoming the leading American auto producer from 1901 through 1904. By 1901 Olds had built 11 prototype vehicles, including at least one of each power mode: steam, electricity and gasoline.

No, Henry Ford did not invent "the automobile," but Henry Ford was an inventor of automobiles. Henry Ford designed his first car, the Quadricycle, while he was employed by Thomas Edison.

No, Henry Ford did not invent "the assembly line," but Henry Ford was the first to use a moving assembly line to manufacture cars. Henry Ford perfected the assembly line producing a entire Model T Ford in 93 minutes. Henry Ford created lower cost automobiles, and created an industry.

Are the traits of inventor and businessman mutually exclusive?

I often see sarcastic remarks in various forums that Thomas Edison was not an inventor, he was a businessman. The remarks are often made in the context of degrading Edison. For many years Thomas Edison was one of the most popular inventors of American history, he was honored and respected. The internet has created many myths and legends, and now in some circles Edison has become the Devil.

George Westinghouse was an inventor, starting with products such as the railroad air brake that made trains safer. Westinghouse, like his contemporaries Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, turned industrialist having found that to profit from an invention one must undertake manufacturing and marketing as well.

Being a geek is not always creating entirely new ideas, but often taking existing ideas and putting them to work in new ways, taking them to new heights.

What does it take to become a great inventor?

Being an inventor is not a field of study, it is a state of mind. The nature of man is solving problems, and the solutions to these problems are inventions.

Using a tree branch to help us pry something apart, we have invented a lever. Using a tree trunk that rolls to help us move something heavy, rather than dragging it across a flat surface, we have the beginnings of a wheel. As these very simple solutions to very simple problems became refined, they become inventions.

Great inventors, innovators, industrialists, all had one thing in common, a passion for their ideas, and a passion to turn their visions into reality. There are endless stories of "inventors" who were always tinkering with things. They had a burning desire to understand how things worked.

Why is Steve Jobs considered an innovator and Thomas Edison a thief?

It's funny when someone asks, "Has Apple ever invented anything original?" and the answers that say that Steve Jobs was an innovator not an inventor, are widely accepted as positive. People praise answers stating that Steve Jobs was great for picking the right set of existing ideas and combining them in a new ways to make better products.

When Thomas Edison takes existing ideas and combines them in new ways to make better products, he is called a thief. Edison did not invent the light bulb, he made a better light bulb, one that was more practical than the ones the others had created. That is exactly what innovation is all about, pick the right set of existing ideas and combine them in a new way that works better than before.

Another criticism of Thomas Edison is that many of the patents that he claimed as his own where the work of his employees. The myth that Edison was a thief is rooted in Edison's legacy of creating an invention factory where Edison used his staff to develop ideas and turn them into patents. Some point to the concept of the invention factory as the reason for his success, critics say Edison took his invention factory too far, and Edison took credit for any individual creativity by his employees.

How is Edison's invention factory any different that the large number of engineers, designers, and programmers working for Microsoft or Apple, but all we hear about is the success of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? How many inventions and innovations made in the name of Apple or Microsoft were not the direct work of Gates or Jobs?

One last thought on the topic of inventor versus innovator, neither Steve Jobs at Apple, or Bill Gates at Microsoft, invented the computer GUI (graphic user interface). Douglas Engelbart developed the computer mouse and graphic user interfaces at his Augmentation Research Center in the 1960s. I give credit to Douglas Engelbart as an often forgotten geek in the world of technology as an inventor. But that does not make the work of Steve Jobs at Apple or Bill Gates at Microsoft any less significant. Gates and Jobs took the ideas and inventions of Doug Engelbart and his staff, and made them better.

I would call Steve Jobs an innovator, rather than an inventor. But much like Henry Ford, even if he invented nothing, he changed everything. Being a geek is not always creating entirely new ideas, but often taking existing ideas and putting them to work in new ways, taking them to new heights.

That is exactly what creating something new is all about, pick the right set of existing ideas and combine them in a new way that works better than before.

The perspective of the story teller

GeekHistory is not a series of top ten lists, but stories to help you understand and appreciate great inventors and technology innovators.

There are many inventors and innovators that deserve to be on the same list as the more well known geeks like Thomas Edison as far as what they accomplished. The names are not commonly known for a variety of reasons. Some inventors preferred to stay out of the spotlight. Some of them worked in small towns and remote locations that did not attract attention.

We look at topics from various angles and stretch your brain to see different perspectives. One version of a story is not necessarily more or less accurate than another, just that sometimes the perspective of the story teller may bring a few new insights on a topic

Technology is an ongoing evolution of experiments and improvements. In this chapter we look as the business of technology, as well as break through the myth of the lone inventor in a laboratory.