If you were to ask a young child who invented pancakes, they’d most likely answer, “My mom!” Well, the bad habit of assuming that the person we associate with an invention is also its creator doesn’t stop at childhood. How many of us think that Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb? And how many know that it was in fact invented by the lesser-known Humphry Davy and Joseph Swan? Unfortunately, the myth of the lone innovator has robbed these two men of their laurels.
People like Edison get the credit for great inventions because we want our products, our ideas and our heroes to come conveniently pre-packaged, as previously mentioned. Therefore, it’s easier to spread the myth that something great was achieved by a single person, even though the truth is that it usually involves more than one mind.
Case in point: everyone knows that the first person on the moon was Neil Armstrong. But did you know that NASA’s project to put a person on the moon involved more than 500,000 people? Armstrong became a household name because he was the most visible individual from the project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his contribution was the most significant.
The myth of the lone inventor is also propagated by our laws. Patent law accredits just one person – or a very small group of people – for an invention, spreading the misconception that only one person can have ownership of a great idea.
However, the opposite is more often the case. Many innovations are invented simultaneously. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz discovered calculus independently of one another, at more or less the same time.
Despite evidence from cases such as Armstrong’s and the origin of calculus, the myth that great ideas are the work of the isolated inventor still prevails.