I’m proud and excited to announce the publication of my book, American Independent Inventors in an Era of Corporate R&D! It is the latest title in the Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation, the Center’s book series with MIT Press.
The book explores the changing fortunes of American independent inventors from approximately 1890 to 1950—a crucial, transformational period marked by the expansion of corporate R&D, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Contrary to most interpretations of this period, I argue that individual inventors were not supplanted by corporate R&D labs, but persisted alongside them as an important, though less visible, source of inventions. I document how individual inventors navigated the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century as they competed (and sometimes partnered) with corporate rivals, fought for professional legitimacy, lobbied for political reforms, and mobilized for the national defense. My final chapter traces how the postwar (1950–2015) experiences of independent inventors often mirrored, but sometimes diverged, from the patterns of their predecessors. Overall, the book asks and answers the question: what was it like to be an independent inventor during an era of corporate R&D?
American Independent Inventors challenges several long-held assumptions about the sources of invention. The nineteenth century had witnessed the so-called “Heroic Age of American Invention,” when mythic individuals such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell created entirely new industries from their inventions while achieving widespread fame. However, beginning around 1900, several large firms, including General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont, established the first research and development laboratories in which teams of PhD scientists developed breakthrough technologies, from long-distance telephony and nylon to transistors, lasers, microchips, and space-age materials—with all resulting patents assigned to the company. Eventually, many contemporary observers—and later, many historians—came to believe that corporate R&D labs had displaced independent inventors as the wellspring of innovation. For example, historian Thomas P. Hughes has suggested that, after World War I, the independents “never again regained their status as the pre-eminent source of invention and development. . . . Industrial scientists, well publicized by the corporations that hired them, steadily displaced, in practice and in the public mind, the figure of the heroic inventor as the source of change in the material world.”1
However, the historical patent data tell a different story. As the graph above demonstrates, US patents issued to individual inventors outnumbered corporate patents until 1933 and represented nearly 50 percent of patents through 1950. Corporations eventually dominated patenting after 1950, but individual inventors continued to produce a stable output of 10,000 to 15,000 patents per year.2 Indeed, the first half of the twentieth century was a long transitional period when lesser-known independents such as Samuel Ruben (Duracell batteries), Garrett A. Morgan (gas mask), Marion O’Brien Donovan (leakproof diaper cover), and Earl S. Tupper (Tupperware) contributed many notable inventions.
From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it might seem odd to devote a book-length study to the rise of corporate R&D and the difficulties of independent inventors. After all, many contemporary observers would probably recognize individual inventor-entrepreneurs and their start-ups—not big, conservative corporations—as the source of most cutting-edge innovations.3 However, the early twentieth century was a somewhat anomalous period when independent inventors struggled for recognition and respect, unlike their heroic predecessors and internet-era successors.
Consider this hypothetical experiment. Suppose we stopped a person on the street and asked about a nineteenth-century invention: for example, who invented the telephone? Most respondents would probably identify Alexander Graham Bell. Similarly, we might ask about a twenty-first century inventor-entrepreneur: for example, who is the founder of Facebook? Again, the average person could probably name Mark Zuckerberg. Now, suppose we asked that same person about an important twentieth-century technology: for example, who invented the photocopier? Chances are that person would name Xerox, the company that commercialized the copier, but not its individual inventor, Chester F. Carlson. My book explains why American independent inventors—once revered as heroes—temporarily fell from public view as corporate brands increasingly became associated with high-tech innovation.
By recovering the stories of a group once considered extinct, American Independent Inventors also extends our understanding of independent inventors beyond the heroic era and into the twenty-first century. Overall, the book reframes the period from 1890 to 2015 as an era when both independent inventors and corporate R&D labs contributed substantially to technological innovation.
Indeed, if we pause to reflect on the technologies we use every day, the contributions of independent inventors are ubiquitous. When you dress for work in the morning, take a moment to appreciate how Lori Greiner organized your jewelry and Marion O’Brien Donovan optimized the hanging space in your closet. In the kitchen, think of Joseph B. Friedman when you sip your breakfast smoothie from a flexible straw, or Earl S. Tupper when you seal your lunch in a Tupperware container. As you head out the door, stop to recall Robert W. Gore as you pull on your Gore-Tex coat and gloves.
On the way to work, remember Frank J. Sprague when you take an elevator down to the platform, and then ride a multi-car subway train. If you drive, pause to appreciate Robert Kearns’s intermittent windshield wipers and the collision avoidance systems (US Patent 5,983,161, US Patent 6,275,773, US Patent 6,487,500) invented by Jerome Lemelson. Likewise, contemplate Charles Adler Jr. when you stop for a flashing safety signal at a railroad crossing.
At the office, you might acknowledge Chester Carlson when you make a photocopy, or Jacob Rabinow, whose automated sorting machines routed the mail. At your desk, consider Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak when you use Microsoft software to type a memo on your Apple computer.
Back at home, remember Aaron Krause and Joy Mangano when you wash the dishes with your Scrub Daddy sponge and mop the floor with a self-wringing Miracle Mop. In your den, pause to appreciate Samuel Ruben and Philo T. Farnsworth, when the Duracell batteries in your remote control turn on the television. Finally, think of Mark Zuckerberg when you browse a few Facebook posts before heading to bed.
Most people would be unfamiliar with these independent inventors. However, it is impossible to deny the impact of their ingenuity.
“Despite the great mass organizations which compete with him,” Business Week observed in 1929, “the individual, genius type of inventor still holds the field as the most important single source of new ideas. . . . He has a hard fight, but holds his own pretty well against the regimented scientists of industry.”4 What was true then is still true today. Independent inventors have endured many challenges over the years, but they have never disappeared. As my book illustrates, the individual genius—in the garret, in the garage, and in the dorm room—has long been, and will always remain, an important source of new technologies.
1 Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  2004), 138–139.
2 Individual inventors’ patents are either unassigned or assigned to an individual on the date of issue. Corporate patents are those assigned to a firm when issued, signifying invention by an employee. See “Patent Applications Filed and Patents Issued, by Type of Patent and Patentee: 1790–2000,” in Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, millennial ed., ed. Susan Carter et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3: 425–429, table Cg27–37.
3 Howard Anderson, “Why Big Companies Can’t Invent,” Technology Review 107, no. 4 (May 2004), 56–59.
4 “Lo, the Poor Inventor!” Business Week, 21 December 1929, 22–23.