There are inventions that we are taught were created by one person. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Elias Howe invented the sewing machine. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. George Eastman invented roll film for cameras. Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio. These are facts we read in history books. But, in history books, we are sometimes taught false information.
In fact, what we are actually taught is who is given credit for an invention. Who actually invented it might be someone else entirely. That is because the person who gets credit is simply the person who filed a patent first. A patent is a claim made by the government. It gives one person or group the sole right to make, use, or sell some invention. Often, the person who gets the patent is not necessarily the first person to make something. Instead, he is just the first to claim to make something.
Take the light bulb. Nearly everyone believes it to be a plain fact that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But, in reality, that is not necessarily the case. The claim is disputed. The British physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan actually invented an incandescent light bulb years before Edison made one in America.
Edison actually was copying Swan’s bulb and trying to improve it. Edison won a patent for his copy of Swan’s bulb. Then, he started an advertising campaign to claim that he was the real inventor. Swan did not care about making money off his invention, so he agreed to let Edison sell his bulbs in America.
Similarly, dozens were working on inventing the telephone around the time Bell was. The same is true for camera technology and radio and almost everything else that has been invented. It is rare for one person to have a truly original idea. Rather, inventions are often the results of an inventor responding to other inventors’ ideas. Patents just make it seem as if one genius created something by him or herself.