I have been traveling quite a bit lately and that means lots of waiting time in airports. My Kindle is loaded with many books and during my most recent trip I read a biography of Alexander Graham Bell (Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell, by Charlotte Gray). He was included in the “great man” sequence back in school but I didn’t pay much attention then since we covered the inventors of the automobile in the same unit.
What stuck with me most about this reading of the telephone inventor’s life was just how short the “telephone years” were for him and how he dealt with the changing environment for scientific and commercial development. The predatory patent practices we decry today — invented in fact in the late 19th century by one Thomas Edison — were fully unleashed on Mr. Bell. He learned the importance of good lab notes during years of litigation, including a final challenge by the U.S. Department of Justice, undertaken by a political supporter of the attorney general.
Before that, Mr. Bell learned the importance of a good support staff of engineers, designers, and machinists. While the telephone, and many other inventions, were his ideas, he lacked the physical ability to translate them into working prototypes. Thomas Watson and a succession of others made those ideas a reality.
History books frequently ignore the contributions of these support functions. We are taught that Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph and the movie projector, when he really managed a team of creative people who accomplished the task by working together. To believe otherwise is contrary to the facts and can only lead to frustration by those who try to “go it alone.”
Another of the more interesting things I learned in this biography was the “invention” of the “think tank” by Mrs. Mabel Bell. The great inventor’s better half got frustrated by her husband’s flitting from one idea to another, and put up the modern equivalent of $200,000 to fund a team of experts to investigate aeronautic theories. While the Wright Brothers conducted their work in secrecy out of fear of patent infringers, Bell and his team did their research in plain sight for the promotion of science. In less than two years they built a succession of improving aircraft into the air and set many early flying records. Sadly, one of their team members became the first aircraft fatality while doing an Army qualification flight with Orville Wright.
Even in our industry some of the famous authors benefitted from the efforts of unnamed support staff. At one point in my career I proudly counted myself amongst those anonymous folks. Since becoming a famous gear expert (need sarcasm font here) I have tried to give credit where credit is due for the people who make my writings possible. Very few engineers accomplish much on their own.