Who is Really the First to Invent Anything?

“First to invent” is a term of art used under previous United States (U.S.) patent law to define who deserved a U.S. patent. Regardless of your opinion about the recent U.S. patent law changes, from a practical sense it is very hard, if not impossible, to define who is the first to invent anything.

I was reminded of this while recently watching a BBC documentary titled “The Story of One”. The documentary focused on the history of the number One. At the end of the documentary the narrator discussed the mathematician Leibnitz’s contribution to digital computers owing to his discovery of the binary number system. He further described how it took 250 years after Leibnitz until the world’s first working binary computer was realized in England in 1945; the Colossus. I was surprised to hear this BBC claim, which caused me to do a bit of research.

As it turns out, it seems more accurate to award that honor to the German, Konrad Zuse, who, beginning in 1938, reportedly designed the first programmable computer, the Z1, in his parents’ living room. Aside from the traditional functions found inside a computer such as memory and control, the Z1 even included a floating point unit. The Z1 used an electric motor to generate the 1Hz clock for mechanical instruction processing. Hence, the Z1 is arguably an electro-mechanical computer.

Conversely, the Colossus was designed beginning in 1943 and is described in Wikipedia as the world's first programmable, electronic, digital computer although it was programmed mechanically using patch cords and switches. Like the Z1, the Colossus is an electro-mechanical computer although a bit more “electro”.

This little history lesson brought back to memory a discussion I once had with several Romanian electronic engineers. At lunch one day I asked the group whom do Romanians regard as a great Romanian inventor. Unanimously everyone named Traian Vuia who I was told invented the airplane. Being an American I was a bit surprised to hear this since I was taught as a child that honor belonged to the Wright brothers from the U.S. state of Ohio. As my colleagues further clarified, Traian’s airplane, built in 1905, was the first aircraft that lifted off the ground while using wheels similar to how all airplanes operate today.

And then there is last year's historical success of the Mars Opportunity rover, which now holds the off-Earth roving distance record. Despite growing up watching all Apollo-era rocket launches from my backyard in the late 1960’s and 70’s, I only learned last year that the Russians held the previous record when their Lunokhod 2 travelled about 23 miles on the surface of the Moon in 1973. That bit of ancient science history wasn’t covered in my Iron-Curtain-period, world history class.

Issac Newton once said that if he has seen further, it is because he stood on the shoulders of giants. When it comes to inventions, it seems there isn’t truly a first inventor but rather a continuous stream of incremental advances in understanding, most times occurring in parallel by multiple people across the globe who don’t know of each other’s pursuits. Research the discovery of the Higg’s Boson to see a great recent example of this thesis.

First to invent seems to be more of a nationalistic term of art rather than one based solely upon objective historical research. This is probably because such a rigorous analysis is not practical even given today’s powerful search engines. This causes me to wonder if there is any real purpose for issuing utility patents to anyone, first inventors or first filers. I even question the value of design patents for similar reasons. It seems to me that the best method for protecting brands that are established based upon the quality of the underlying utility and design of a product is through Trademarks. Let the market determine what is inventive and worthy of purchase.

11 comments on “Who is Really the First to Invent Anything?

  1. cbbear
    October 28, 2015

    FYI, Brazil considers the inventor of the airplane the fellow countryman Santos Dumont, who sustained a flight of 60m taking off without any help.

    The flight (unlike the Wright's one) was witnessed by a crowd and filmed in Paris, October 1906.

    But all this is beyond the point: complex inventions, like airplane and computers, are the result of small improvement steps, made by different people in differnt times and places. It is very common that several people get to similar results at about the same time, independently. This is contrary the romantic idea of a lone genius in the lab having his “eureka” moment, although, we must admit, Zuze's history comes close.

  2. qbs
    October 28, 2015

    And for the french the first flight is made by clement Ader on the éole in 1890.

    A splendid flight of 50 m long and 20 cm high!


  3. Scott Elder
    October 28, 2015

    Tesla recently placed all of their patents in the public domain.  Great step forward.  Patents are no longer worth anything.  Innovation is happening too fast.  And defending a patent costs multi-millions of dollars.

    I could also never understand why research was always hidden behind “pay walls”.  Why not openly publish the innovations on line and sell advertising to fund the operation?

  4. antedeluvian
    October 28, 2015

    There is some (disputed) evidence that Richard Pearse from New Zealand flew before the Wright Brothers

  5. TomAtMuse
    October 28, 2015

    Scott, your post brought to mind Stigler's Law of Eponymy (which I know of from my statistics training). Stigler is a renowned historian of statistics.  Stigler's Law says:  No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer (including Stigler's Law!). The original paper on it was published in Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, but you can read about it on Wikipedia. 

  6. frankun
    October 30, 2015

    Who is really the first to invent anything ?

    I think it's depend on who has the best marketing services.

  7. wiliamarthur
    November 2, 2015

    Tesla recently placed all of their patents in the public domain.  Great step forward.  Patents are no longer worth anything.  Innovation is happening too fast.  And defending a patent costs multi-millions of dollars.

  8. Scott Elder
    November 2, 2015

    Great irony Tom.  I'll have to remember that one.!

  9. Scott Elder
    November 2, 2015

    Reminds me of the recent Mercedes Benz (MB) commercials in the U.S. where they “dance around” who is an innovator.  They imply MB is with their 80,000 patents, but we all know companies don't innovate (invent) patents, they buy them (read: hold or assign) from the employee innovators or other companies.

    So I think you are right!  Its for marketing.

    Nevertheless, MB truly sells innovative automobiles. 

  10. Artfldgr
    November 14, 2015

    There ARE inventions that others may not get, and so would be missed. given the great expanse of things, its not always the case.  i have a cheap chip design that can scan peta scale data (i work in research computing) as one moves it from one location to another or builds an index. very fast… no one yet has come close, they may never, and no one might ever know about it given my skill at moving things forward does not match my skill at other things.   in the case of inventions that are unique, its the ones that people invent, that work, and never go someplace or are ever reinvented as the proof of such – and not analysable either, other than supposing their existence and their implication.  of course, most things rely on the invention of prior things, but that does not mean that the prior things necessarily clearly imply what can be done with them given the expanse of reality and its permutative size.

    this is not an either or argument its a how much of one, how much of another argument, and not know the proportions nor even contemplate lost importances.



  11. Scott Elder
    January 13, 2016

    Thanks for commenting Artfidgr.  Do you believe that your chip will perform faster than a quantum computer?

    If you care to share more about your work, I'd find the time to see what I can uncover in prior art.  I'd like that challenge…although it may take some time.

    Good luck with your endeavour!


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