Innovations applying fiber optics, mobile phones and satellites have been the result of simultaneous inventions and incremental improvements rather than the achievement of the lone inventor enjoying an eureka moment. The myth of the sole inventor persists because it supports our celebration of the rugged individualist, who by (usually his) own bootstraps rises to conquer all obstacles. This self-reliance of independent scientists and engineers from Eli Whitney to Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Edison and on to Henry Ford has been the mainstay of our folklore.

In reality, scientific discoveries result from steady increments in knowledge, the uninterrupted social interaction between scientists, systematic methods of inquiry and the consequences of their time. Robert K. Merton, the noted sociologist, argued that “the pattern of independent multiple discoveries in science is in principle the dominant pattern, rather than a subsidiary one.”

The laboratories of Thomas Edison (see above) in Menlo Park, New Jersey and New York provide a good example of the collective basis of innovation. In Menlo Park, Edison and Francis Upton developed a carbon filament that did not melt; this new design led to a long-lasting (up to 40 hours) lamp. Thus, in late 1879 Edison introduced the first practical incandescent bulb.

The Edison Electric Illuminating Company developed a central generating station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, which opened on September 4, 1882. Edison’s team at the Pearl Street station installed six “Jumbo” dynamos, each weighing 27 tons and capable of powering more than 1,100 lights. His collaborators included Lewis Latimer, holder of a patent for improved carbon filaments, (see photo above and left, patent), who worked at the Edison Electric Light Company in New York from 1884 to 1896 as a patent investigator and draftsman.

In the 20th century Bell Labs offers the best evidence of collaborative innovation. Opened in Manhattan in 1925, Bell Labs moved to the New Jersey suburbs after World War II, where its long corridors and mandatory open-door policy fostered interaction among engineers, physicists, chemists, materials scientists and mathematicians. Bell Labs believed that innovation best occurs when people of different talents work in an environment conducive to open dialogue. The transistor (1947) resulted from the teamwork of William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen which sparked the invention. Bell Labs contributed greatly to the telecommunications system of the mid-20th century through its innovations in transistors, lasers, communication by satellites, charge-couple devices (CCD), silicon solar cells and the UNIX computer operating system.


Learn More

  1. The digital edition of the Thomas Edison Papers contains nearly 175,000 document images from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park Archives.
  2. The IBM Archives houses documents, images, and other materials detailing the history of the International Business Machines Co.  from its origins in the late nineteenth-century.
  3. Software developer Francois Marier recounts the history of open-source software in this narrative slideshow.