THE DECLINE OF THE INVENTOR Technology, marketing doom the Edisons of the world to obscurity


Names like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell strike a deeply resonant chord in the American psyche. They are cultural icons, elevated to a heroic status that reflects and reinforces our image of the United States as a country filled with the type of ingenuity that ensures our economic prosperity.

But now the image of the inventor seems obscured in a fog of complicated technology and sophisticated marketing, so hard to see that you have to wonder whether such Americans still exist.

They do, of course. The U.S. Patent Office recorded 110,860 new patents in 1991. But the names on almost all of them are unknown to most of us. Their anonymity can be traced to a change in the nature of inventions and, perhaps more importantly, to a change in the nature of the country.

"The technologists know who the inventors are, but most people don't," said Jacob Rabinow, a Bethesda resident who holds 226 patents that have a wide variety of applications from phonographs and photography to clocks and ordnance.

"I think it's because the technology has gotten so complex that most people just don't understand it," he said. "It doesn't mean anything to them."

Robert Kargon, chairman of the History of Science department at Johns Hopkins University, said that the decline of the inventors' fame can often be traced to the impossibility of assigning credit to a single individual.

"People now work on very complex systems," he said. "So a big advancement, whether it's television or integrated circuitry, is made up of a lot of little steps. You can't say that one person invented it."

And to work on such complex systems usually requires the underwriting of a corporation. Working in a large laboratory can strip the inventor of his heroic status as the corporation enforces a kind of anonymity on its scientists as it claims their patents for itself.

According to producer Ken Burns, that is exactly what happened to the men he profiles in tonight's PBS documentary "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio."

"All of these men were born in the 19th century," Mr. Burns pointed out in an interview from his offices in New Hampshire. "They wanted to be the next Edison or Bell or Morse. But they crashed into the business realities of the 20th century."

John Kettering made a fortune on the business realities of the 20th century as one of the early executives at General Motors, but his name is probably unknown to almost all Americans.

"If you do recognize it, it's because he put his name on the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center," said Stuart Leslie, a professor in the Hopkins History of Science Department, who is Kettering's biographer.

Kettering, according to Dr. Leslie, was a prolific inventor who came up with the self-starter for the automobile, which got him into General Motors, and then with a series of innovations including the diesel locomotive, octane for gasoline, and freon, the basic gas used for refrigeration.

Marketers get the fame

Dr. Leslie offers a more basic reason than the increasing complexity of technology for the decline of the status of the American inventor.

"I think what has happened is that as we have moved from a manufacturing-oriented society to one that is consumer-oriented, fame has moved from the engineers to the marketers," he said. "The inventor isn't a celebrity, but someone like Donald Trump is."

"Empire of the Air" chronicles the beginnings of that change.

The most famous of the trio of men it profiles is David Sarnoff, who had little to do with the invention of the radio, but a lot to do with the invention of the concept of broadcasting. Sarnoff used many of the inventions of the least known, but most inventive, of these three, Howard Armstrong, as the basis for his company, RCA. The third man, Lee de Forest, stole most of his inventions, according to Mr. Burns, but managed a modicum of fame through tireless self-promotion and a lucky court decision.

Often the celebrity these days is someone like Sarnoff, not the Edison or Bell who invents the new technology, but the entrepreneur who recognizes its potential and exploits that to make a fortune.

Jobs forced out

Most likely you remember Steven Jobs, the man who envisioned much of the personal computer industry, but you might have forgotten Steven Wozniak, the hacker who actually came up with the Apple computer that made Mr. Jobs rich and famous.

"And look what happened to a visionary like Jobs," Dr. Leslie said. "They force him out and bring in John Sculley who used to sell Pepsi-Cola to run the company."

Still, marketing has long been a part of the successful inventor's portfolio.

Robert Rosenberg, a Baltimore resident who is one of the editors of the papers of Thomas Edison, a project at Rutgers University, noted that Edison learned the importance of rudimentary market research early in his career.

"His first invention was a machine to tabulate votes for the state legislator," Dr. Rosenberg said. "He took it to the Connecticut state house and they explained to him that when they voted they didn't just want some little light coming on, they had to get up and make speeches.

"After that, before he invented anything, he made sure it was something people needed, that there would be a market for it."

Dr. Rosenberg also pointed out that, though Edison ran a big corporate-style lab of his own, he had the peripatetic mind of a true inventor, not that of the nose-to-the-grindstone corporate soldier.

'Just liked to invent'

"Today most people apply themselves to one problem and try to solve it," he said. "Edison just liked to invent things. He went from the phonograph to the light bulb to the motion picture to the beginnings of the mimeograph machine to, at the end of his life, cement. Few people know that Yankee Stadium was made with Edison's cement."

Still, most inventors do not attain the type of status Edison had and have to work under the aegis of a large corporation.

According to Dr. Leslie, such companies are not necessarily interested in inventing new technologies, but rather focus on maintaining their competitive position.

"You might say what they do is defensive research, not offensive invention," Dr. Leslie said of their research. "They don't necessarily want anything new, they just want to make sure their competitors can't get it."

The result of such an approach is evident in the American automobile industry; once General Motors, Ford and Chrysler became content with their market shares, inventiveness ceased, said.

"The last real innovations to come out of the American automobile industry were in the early 1950s with the short-stroke, high-compression, V-8 engine and the automatic transmission," he said.

Stumbling block

Dr. Leslie can also track the change in the top ranks of the automobile industry, how fewer and fewer high-ranking executives came from the engineering side and more and more from the marketing departments.

That, according to Mr. Rabinow, is a stumbling block for genuine inventors that results in fundamental problems for American technology.

"The big companies are not being run by the technological people who created these industries," Mr. Rabinow said. "The people running these companies don't understand technology so they are afraid of it.

"They understand money, but you never really invent anything for money. It's for the love of it. It would be like having someone who doesn't like opera running an opera company. And then you try to compose an opera for this man?

"By the way, this is not the case in Japan. There the people running the companies are still the ones who founded them. But in the United States, it's not the children or even the grandchildren of the founders. They are being run by some M.B.A. or another."

Mr. Rabinow also pointed out that, per capita, the Japanese file for 10 times as many patents as Americans do.

"It's hard to get American children to study engineering," he said. "They all want to be lawyers or doctors or go somewhere they think the money is. Foreigners come into this country to study engineering. Something like 40 percent of the U.S. patents are filed by foreigners. It used to be 5 or 10 percent. That's frightening."

But perhaps not surprising.

The schoolchildren who used to dream of Edison and Bell now are being raised on stories of Donald Trump's millions and Lee Iacocca's ad campaign.

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