That innovation stems from a genius or two operating from a garage, or a dorm room, is a common misconception. Most people think of Edison toiling alone to invent the light bulb or Hewlett and Packard holed up in their garage inventing—well, most people probably don't quite know what Hewlett and Packard were up to.
The credit commonly given to the lone inventor might seem harmless, but it could be seriously counter-productive, according to Eric D. Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, writing in Slate.
The romantic notion that “inventor-heroes” are “single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude” is unfortunate, he writes, “..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.”
Isaacs obviously has a personal stake in the lab vs. dorm-room question, but in fact, he correctly notes, “A full-scale laboratory equipped with the latest technology and staffed with highly trained professional researchers” is the optimum venue for scientific research.
It's interesting to note how the so-called solitary inventors were often instrumental in promulgating the myth of the lone genius. Here is how Scott Berkun puts it in The Myths of Innovation: “Ford and Edison paid for marketing campaigns to promote their innovations, businesses, and themselves. As businessmen, they had every reason to promote their work in ways that suggested they deserved every last drop of credit. They became media darlings of their times, appearing in interviews and books, and benefiting—just as star CEOs of today—from the power of public attention. It became convenient for journalists to write in an Edison-or Fordcentric view because making the inventors star characters increased the public's interest in the news.”
Isaacs notes, “Edison succeeded in burnishing his public image as a lonely genius.” Here is how the New York Times put it after Edison's death in 1931: “No figure so completely satisfied the popular conception of what an inventor should be. Here was a solitary genius revolutionizing the world and making an invisible force do his bidding—a genius that conquered conservatism, garlanded cities in light, and created wonders that transcended the predictions of Utopian poets.”
The electrical age, the Times gushed, is largely one of Edison's creation: “He found a world that hardly knew what a piece of insulated wire was, burning kerosene and gas; he left it sending several telegrams over one wire in accordance with his invention, viewing motion pictures which he made practical, painting with his electric light and listening to the notes of great singers and orchestras embalmed by his phonograph. With him passes the last of the heroic inventers and the greatest of the line.”
Apart from the lack of credit to pioneers such as Maxwell and Hertz, this romanticized picture of Edison is largely misleading. As Isaacs puts it, “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.”
Isaacs goes on to note that after the success of the light bulb, “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.”
Isaacs also comments on Hewlett and Packard: 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.”
But is there actually a problem with an exaggerated, romanticized view of these inventors? According to Isaacs, there is. He writes, “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.”
Isaacs intimates that there is a retrenchment of sorts underway that is subverting the scientific infrastructure that will be necessary to reduce solar energy costs, improve electrical vehicle batteries, and sequester excess carbon. He cites as an example Bell Labs' sharply reduced research budgets in the face of the 1995 telecom deregulation. What's needed, he says, is basic research not focused on quarterly financial results.
He acknowledges “…that every transformative idea is first born in the mind of an individual genius. But a lone inventor burning the midnight oil cannot match the impact of a team of brilliant experts working to develop that idea within a system designed to maximize discovery, with access to the best tools on earth—supercomputers, synchrotrons, accelerators, and all the other dazzling technologies that support science today.”
Unfortunately, he says, “The technological might of our National Laboratory system is unlikely to rival a musty garage in the public imagination. The men and women who work at my own laboratory, Argonne, and at our sister labs will never be portrayed as heroes in the pages of comic books.” Nevertheless, “The work we do in the national laboratories promises to dramatically accelerate the discovery and development of new materials, technologies, and processes—and ultimately, those efforts will power the expansion of the American economy.”