How America's individual inventors persisted alongside corporate R&D labs as an important source of inventions.
During the nineteenth century, heroic individual inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell created entirely new industries while achieving widespread fame. However, by 1927, a New York Times editorial suggested that teams of corporate scientists at General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont had replaced the solitary “garret inventor” as the wellspring of invention. But these inventors never disappeared. In this book, Eric Hintz argues that lesser-known inventors such as Chester Carlson (Xerox photocopier), Samuel Ruben (Duracell batteries), and Earl Tupper (Tupperware) continued to develop important technologies throughout the twentieth century. Moreover, Hintz explains how independent inventors gradually fell from public view as corporate brands increasingly became associated with high-tech innovation.
Focusing on the years from 1890 to 1950, Hintz documents how American independent inventors competed (and sometimes partnered) with their corporate rivals, adopted a variety of flexible commercialization strategies, established a series of short-lived professional groups, lobbied for fairer patent laws, and mobilized for two world wars. After 1950, the experiences of independent inventors generally mirrored the patterns of their predecessors, and they continued to be overshadowed during corporate R&D's postwar golden age. The independents enjoyed a resurgence, however, at the turn of the twenty-first century, as Apple's Steve Jobs and Shark Tank's Lori Greiner heralded a new generation of heroic inventor-entrepreneurs. By recovering the stories of a group once considered extinct, Hintz shows that independent inventors have long been—and remain—an important source of new technologies.
Eric S. Hintz is a Historian with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and coeditor of Does America Need More Innovators? (MIT Press).
“Eric Hintz offers a major new interpretation of American independent inventors in the twentieth century. By showing us how they continued to flourish amidst competition from the growing ranks of corporate laboratories, he also challenges us to reconsider the so-called golden age of invention.”
Paul Israel, Director and General Editor, Thomas A. Edison Papers; author of Edison: A Life of Invention
“From Ben Franklin to Mark Zuckerberg, independent inventors have continually reshaped both the devices and social landscape of America. Yet we often assume that these heroic inventors disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century and contributed little to twentieth-century technology. In this remarkable study, Eric Hintz challenges this assumption by introducing us to a host of twentieth-century inventors who created everything from the flexible straw to television. In doing so, Hintz traces how inventors moved ideas from the workbench in the garage to the retail store by skillfully building alliances with venture capitalists, corporations, and consumers. Hintz reminds us that Yankee ingenuity is alive and well, ready to help us confront the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age