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The Heroic Age of American Invention

The Heroic Age of American Invention, 1961, by L. Sprague de Camp.

One fact may partly explain the failure of Hellenistic science to become the self-perpetuating, ever-growing thing that science is today. This is the separation of pure science from applied science - that is from engineering and invention. Nowadays pure science could not advance unless inventors provided it with new tools and instruments, while inventors would soon bog down without new scientific discoveries to apply and exploit. In ancient times, however, pure science was a matter for upper-class philosophers, while inventions were mostly made by obscure common workmen. Archimedes, deeming himself primarily a pure scientist, apologized for his invention as beneath the dignity of a gentleman. 13

Another reason for [Robert] Fulton's success was that, having been an artist, he drew such beautiful pictures of the parts he wanted that the mechanics who made them got them right the first time. 35

By that time [1880] the Patent Office had become so cluttered with models, and the models themselves, with the advance of the mechanical arts, had become so costly that the requirement was dropped. Although the Patent Office is still entitled to ask for models, it now does so only in cases involving perpetual-motion machines and other inventions that seem to violate the laws of nature. 40

...the ground was laid for the heroic age of American invention. This is the age during which the patent laws were well enough organized, and conditions were favorable enough to inventors, so that those with meritorious inventions had a vair chance of success - provided that they also had a reasonable degree of business and legal sense and a little luck as well. This was the age that, more than any other in history, inspired and encouraged the individual inventive mind. At this time the profession of inventing had not become so large and highly organized, nor had it fallen so completely under corporate control, nor had the pace of technological change become so swift, that the individual inventor ceased to count for much and inventing became just another job. Although these changes were gradual, we may date the heroic age roughly from 1836 to 1917. It began with the reorganization of the Patent Office and ended with the entry of the United States into the First World War. 41

"The [McCormick] reaping machine from the United States is the most valuable contribution from abroad...It is worth the whole cost of the [1851 London] Exhibition." 109

The most spectacular effort to solve the typesetting problem was that of James W. Paige of Hartford, Connecticut. Paige spent twenty years, beginning in 1873, and over two million dollars in perfecting this monstrosity...which weighed three tons and had 18,000 parts. The basic patent No. 547,860 had 163 sheets of drawings with 471 figures, and 146 claims. Two Patent Office examiners went insane during the prosecution of this application and the many applications Paige filed on improvements. When completed, the Paige compositor was a marvelous piece of machinery but commercially useless. 151

[Alexander Graham] Bell knew something about diaphragms, for he had already worked with a device he called the phonautograph to help his deaf pupils. This had a diaphragm attached to a stylus, so that when a pupil sppoke into it the stylus made a wavy line. The deaf person could compare the wavy line made when he pronounced a word with that made by a normal speaker and thus correct his mistakes. 159

He [Thomas Edison] distressed his mother by dripping sulfuric acid on the furniture until his chemicals were banished to the cellar. 171

From 1863 to 1868, Edison worked as a wandering telegrapher. He was a notably fast operator who could 'copy behind' - that is, write several sentences behind the message coming in without forgetting or getting mixed up. 171

General Marshall Lefferts, the president of Western Union, retained Edison on a free-lance basis, but without any definite contract. Edison continued to improve stock tickers until Lefferts called him in and asked him how much he thought the company should pay him for the rights to his inventions. Edison had no notion of how much. He thought of asking for $5000 and letting himself be chaffered down to $3000. In desperation he said: "Well, General, suppose you make me an offer." "How would forty thousand dollars strike you?" Edison came "as near to fainting as I ever got," but managed to say yes. Three days later he signed the contract and was given the first check he had ever handled. At the bank, the teller told him to endorse it. The deaf Edison failed to understand, thought that he must have been given a wotrhless paper, and returned to General Lefferts. Lefferts explained and sent Edison back to the bank with a clerk to identify him. The teller thought it would be a good joike to give Edison his forty thousand in small bills. Edison sat up all night guarding his vast wad, until next day Lefferts showed him how to open a bank account. 173

Edison not only admitted but also bragged of the fact that he was no theoretical scientist but a trial-and-error inventor. However, he was not at all erratic or unsystematic in his inventive procedures. He was methodical as well as fertile, energetic, self-confident, single-minded, and persistent. He used a shotgun method of attacking problems: first read everything, then try everything. 176

Edison put his perfected lamp on the market at forty cents a bulb, although at first they cost $1.25 apiece to make. In five years he had reduced the cost to twenty-two cents, but the price remained the same while sales rose into millions. 181

Parliament passed laws restricting operation of steam coaches and raised their toll charges to prohibitive heights. The most drastic of these laws, in force from 1865 to 1896, required a man with a red flag to walk in front of the vehicle. 210

Goodyear conceived a passion for making rubber practical. ... Somebody described him thus: "If you meet a man who has on an India rubber cap, stock, coat, vest, and shoes, with an India rubber money purse, without a cent of money in it, that is he." 212-3

While [Reginald Aubrey] Fessenden was running tests for th eUnited States Navy between the U.S.S. Topeka and Sandy Hook, the [Lee] De Forest Wireless Company installed a shack a few feet from the naval station and (according to Fessenden) told its operator to foul up the tests. This he did by opening a powerful wireless transmitter and putting a brick on the key to keep it sending static, until Fessenden's crew bribed him with food and liquor to take off the brick. 245

Moreover, many inventors are ornery individualists by nature, the very opposite of the "organization man." To such people, fitting themselves into a corporate mold and practicing teamwork and togetherness are apt to be particularly irksome. 259

Wikipedia says this was a childern's book, but the ideal reader is an early teenager who wants a broad tale of what an inventor is. I enjoyed its broad sweep of American inventors, which allows it to capture a bit of the spirit and excitement of their ages without getting bogged down into technical or historical detail. It's written simply and engagingly, providing at least one colorful note about the person, circumstance, or inventive journey of each of the subjects, as the above quotes show.