Forget About the Mythical Lone Inventor in the Garage

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May 18 2012 7:00 AM

Forget About the Mythical Lone Inventor in the Garage

Real innovations happen in big, well-funded labs.

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We like to imagine geniuses like Albert Einstein working alone

AFP

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On May 21, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., called “How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” We’ll discuss how the United States approaches science and technology research, the role government should play in funding, and more. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.

Where are the best scientific ideas created and developed?

a) A garage.
b) A basement workshop.
c) A dorm room.
d) A kitchen.
e) A full-scale laboratory equipped with the latest technology and staffed with highly trained professional researchers.

It might not be romantic, but the correct answer is e).

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As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream. From Thomas Edison to Iron Man, our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude.

And that’s unfortunate, because the myth that innovative genius burns brightest in dingy isolation has a real impact on the way this nation views the importance of the knowledge enterprise and the scientific infrastructure that supports it.

Consider Edison. In his 14-month quest to develop a commercially practical electric light bulb, he wrote, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material."

It’s awe-inspiring to think of Edison sitting alone at his workbench in Menlo Park, N.J., patiently testing fiber after fiber, hour after hour, day after day. It’s also patently untrue. In fact, Edison was leading the world’s first large-scale research and development laboratory, a highly organized, multipurpose facility staffed by a 40-person team of scientists and technicians.

After the light bulb proved successful, Edison went on to build an even larger “Invention Factory” in nearby West Orange, a complex that included sophisticated research facilities and manufacturing capabilities. At its peak, it employed more than 200 scientists, machinists, craftsmen, and other workers.

Edison succeeded in burnishing his public image as a lonely genius. After his death in 1931, the New York Times mourned: "No figure so completely satisfied the popular conception of what an inventor should be. Here was a solitary genius revolutionizing the world—a genius that conquered conservatism, garlanded cities in light, and created wonders that transcended the predictions of Utopian poets. ... With him passes perhaps the last of the heroic inventors and the greatest of the line. The future probably belongs to the corporation research laboratory, with trained engineers directed by a scientific captain." But away from the reporters and the newsreel cameras, Edison was in fact that scientific captain, the executive director of a big, world-class laboratory.

A more modern example of the gap between creation myth and reality can be found in the Palo Alto, Calif., garage where William Hewlett and David Packard worked together in 1938 to build custom electronic devices—a legendary partnership that eventually became the Hewlett-Packard Co. Today, that garage is marked with a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places declaring it “The Birthplace of `Silicon Valley.’ ”

It’s certainly true that Hewlett and Packard began building their first commercial audio oscillators inside that historic garage. But the prototype of those oscillators was built in the laboratory of Stanford University electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman. And Packard later wrote that many of those early devices were built using technical equipment at an engineering lab owned by a friend, an engineer and entrepreneur named Charles Litton. So while that Palo Alto garage may be a legendary landmark for the IT industry, Hewlett-Packard would not have been possible without its founders’ access to state-of-the-art engineering labs.

These romanticized versions of technological history aren’t just inaccurate. They threaten to undermine public support for the scientific infrastructure that is necessary to fuel American innovation and assure global economic competitiveness in the decades to come.

Today, American scientists and engineers are facing a number of perplexing questions that will have a lasting impact on our economy and our environment:

  • How can we create a solar cell that costs five cents per kilowatt-hour?
  • How can we reduce the cost of a car battery to one cent per mile?
  • How can we cost-effectively capture the excess carbon in our atmosphere and store it permanently and safely?

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