Inventors have been overshadowed by corporations and marketing

January 29, 1992|By Michael Hill

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."

Charles 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.

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.

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 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.

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