Scientists in the Shadows
The history behind many inventions, discoveries, and processes is often more complicated than we may think. I’ve recently written about how society has prevented many women from having their creative brilliance recognized in their own time. However, the issue is deeper than just women. Most important discoveries are made by teams of people who are, in some way, likely building on the work of other groups that came before them. These days, we may know how to credit the work of others and show that we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants with every bit of forward progress we make. However, it is possible, and in some cases proven, that some who we see as giants may have stood on the shoulders of people they did not always bother to recognize. While it is impossible to do justice for every great inventor who never received his or her proper time in the spotlight, I would like to highlight a few.
As an avid fan of movies and a college student who needed an arts credit, I took a class that discussed the history of film from its beginnings to the present. The early origins portion of the class presented the Lumiere brothers and Edison as some of the men who displayed the first films. However, very little, if anything, is said about Louis Le Prince, one of several inventors who could make the case for being the true inventor of the motion picture camera. Now, what makes matters more difficult is that new types of cameras and motion picture cameras were being developed by many individuals around the world. Le Prince received a patent for his 16-lens camera in 1888 with an important change. The line that said his patent was for a camera with “one or more lenses” was removed because another individual had already been awarded a patent for a single-lens camera. However, this camera was strictly for taking still pictures. This meant Le Prince’s patent would only cover multi-lens motion picture cameras. Le Prince eventually created a single-lens motion picture camera and was ready to premiere his first film in New York in 1890. This was five years before Edison and six years before the Lumiere brothers. Regardless, he was never able to show the film, for he mysteriously vanished. There have been many theories about how he disappeared. His family believed he was taken by henchmen of Edison while others thought he fled to escape his own debts. Either way, no evidence of him or his death was ever found. Without proof of death, his family could not use his patent for seven years. By that time, others had managed to create the technology and Le Prince was lost to time.
A far less mysterious case is that of Jagadish Chandra Bose, who is thought of as an important figure in establishing technology that would lead to modern Wi-Fi. Many people contributed to the technology that would eventually change our world, but Bose can be considered one who has not received as much credit as he should have. He showed how radio waves could be used for wireless communication two years before Marconi managed to make his work public. Unlike in the case of the motion picture camera, Marconi did credit Bose for his valuable ideas. Marconi placed a much bigger focus on commercialization of wireless communication systems, while Bose had next to no interest in personal gain from his experiments. It is a simple case of how priorities can affect one’s place in history. However, as one found acclaim and the other made the science available to the world, both men got what they wanted.
Sometimes, credit for a discovery is decided not by patent laws or priorities, but by power. This was the case for everyone’s favorite invention: calculus. Well, as an engineer, I am at least a fan. Most people would probably say that Issac Newton invented calculus. This is actually a contested statement. While Newton claims to have invented and utilized calculus as early as the 1660s, his paper describing the formulation of calculus was not printed until 1693. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had a similar situation when he said he created calculus during the 1670s, even though his paper was published in 1684. However, despite when either man claims to have written the theories published in his paper, Leibniz’s formal paper was published nearly ten years before Newton’s. For a variety of reasons, powerful individuals pushed theories claiming that in spite of the publishing record, Leibniz had gotten his ideas from Newton. He was also accused of plagiarism. The Royal Society investigated the matter, but was heavily biased toward Newton and continued to peddle false facts about Leibniz in its conclusions. Newton, already destined for the history books, won this round.
Ultimately, history can be difficult to keep track of. In a time when communication was more complicated, it is fair that scientists did not always know what their fellow inventors were up to. In cases where work was deliberately covered up, it is good to try and recognize those individuals who history has tried to smother. It is impossible for us to remember the millions of voices who have made our world the way it is today, but we can share our gratitude to them by appreciating the results of their work. For those of us doing research ourselves, we must always remember to credit everyone whose shoulders we stand on because very little, if anything, has ever been accomplished alone.