October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated A couple of years ago this sheepish mea culpa appeared in the Los Angeles Times : “A March 18 story on San Francisco’s Edison Charter Academy incorrectly said Thomas Edison invented electricity. Electricity is a phenomenon of nature; Edison invented ways to generate and use it.” Seventy-two years after his death Edison remains America’s most beloved inventor, the father of the light bulb and the talking phonograph, and, as the L.A. Times gaffe shows, the perpetual icon of electricity. This is all wonderfully ironic, for the Wizard of Menlo Park suffered his most humbling shellackine over matters electrical. Yes, Edison did invent the first functional incandescent light bulb, but he also stubbornly clung to his doomed, technically inferior direct current (DC) system for generating and distributing electricity. He ended up losing his company in the vicious corporate struggle known as the War of the Electric Currents, which pitted his DC against the far superioral-ternating current (AC) system in use to this day. Imagine a corporate battle so virulent that the first use of the electric chair was championed as a RR. weapon to discredit AC!
Nonetheless, AC prevailed as the winning electrical technology. Its pioneering inventors and developers were the charismatic Pittsburgh entrepreneur George Westinghouse (all but forgotten except as a brand name) and the brilliant, charming, and utterly weird Nikola Tesla. (This Serbian genius had such severe germ phobias he required 16 fresh napkins to personally clean each and every piece of cutlery, china, and glass just before dining. Yet the great love of his life was a white pigeon.) As for Edison, after losing the War of the Electric Currents, he bitterly declared: “I’ve come to the conclusion that I never did know anything about it [electricity]. I’m going to do something now so different and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever done before people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical.” The cosmic joke is that a century later Edison is the electrical immortal, while his despised AC enemies, the men who actually developed the electrical system we all use, are barely remembered.
Underrated As for America’s most underrated inventor(s), how about those who created the computer, arguably the most transforming technology since electricity and the automobile? The fathers of the computer, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, have achieved a modicum of post-mortem fame outside high-tech circles, thanks to several recent popular histories. But considering the importance of the computer, their names should be as familiar as Edison’s. Yet few know the story of how back in the 1940s these two University of Pennsylvania instructors, under contract to the military to solve vexing problems of artillery trajectories, invented the first electronic digital computer, a 30-ton behemoth with 17,000 vacuum tubes known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), or “the Beast.” Fewer still know of the six women “computers” who pioneered the original programs that made the Beast work. As Inventors’ Digest points out, “There were no computer manuals, no operating systems, no computer language.” All these were invented by Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Kathleen McNulty, Marilyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman, and their work enabled the Beast to grind through its (then) swift and incredible calculations.
Unfortunately for American inventors, there seem to be a few venerable immortals—Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers—and then every one else.