Wright and Wrong

imgresAll the calculations show it can’t work. There’s only one thing to do: make it work.   –Pierre Georges Latécoère, early French aviation entrepreneur.

When I went to school in Murray, Kentucky, there were plaques around town that honored Nathan Stubblefield, the inventor of the radio.   The inventor of the radio?  I grew up believing that it was Marconi who invented the radio, although later on I learned that the guy who I thought invented the telephone actually held the patent for the radio, good old Alex Bell.

I guess that when it comes to intellectual property and who reaps the benefits of their labor, the game of who gets credit for what is important.   But for those of us who use toasters, it hardly matters who invented them.  What intrigues me, especially as I travel to other parts of the world, is the extent to which nationalistic pride comes into it.

Ask Americans who was the first to take flight, and they will almost certainly say it was one of the Wright Brothers.  Ask that question in France, and they will tell you not only that the French invented aviation altogether, but they will reel off the names of Charles Renard, Henri Giffard and Arthur Krebs—all French of course.  In Italy, they will mention DaVinci, although there is no record of Leo ever actually lifting off.   They will, however, mention Tito Burattini, who successfully lifted a cat into flight in 1648 (but not himself).

In Great Britain, they will tell you that it was Sir George Cayley in 1846, five decades before the Wright Brothers invented the “aeroplane”.  Cayley began drawing pictures of airplanes when he was 10 years old, which was around 1792.

In Germany, they will mention Gustave Weisskopf, who emigrated to the U.S. where he changed his name to Whitehead.  In 1901, a year before the Wright Brothers’ flight, he carried out a controlled, powered flight in a monoplane in Fairfield, Connecticut.   Although a story ran about it in the local newspaper, he obviously didn’t have as good a press agent as the Wrights, so he never made it into the history books.  Or, perhaps, his neglecting to change his first name had something to do with it.

National pride, I suppose, is primarily an extension of the instinct to protect one’s own tribe.   Without tribal identity one vanishes into the whims of those who seek to conquer. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing most likely depends on the outcome, and the question of who gets hurt in the process.

In reading the history of the development of the atom bomb, for example, it seemed clear that national pride had little to do with getting there first.   Getting there first was imposed by the circumstances, but those who labored to split the atom did so more out of the spirit of the challenge than out of tribal identity.

I have been fortunate enough to know a few inventors, and none of them invented out of national pride.   They did so because they had a creative instinct, a love affair with solving problems cleverly and doing things better.  Money and credit are often secondary motivations.  National pride seems to come into play more by those seeking to find a way to attach themselves and their identities to the cleverness of the inventors they celebrate.   I may not have invented Swiss cheese, but you can rest assured it must have been another Eastern European Jew.  We invent everything.

What is most important is the spirit of invention itself, a spirit that has resulted for the most part in prolonged lives with less suffering.   That is noble, and that is the thing to be nurtured.