The Lone Inventor Fallacy

 by Darrell Winfrey

This document is in reference to an article entitled “No, a Black man didn’t invent the light bulb. But Lewis Howard Latimer made it better” by Leah Asmelash. It appeared on the CNN website on September 4, 2020, as a response to a recent comment made by Joe Biden. During a speech, he said, “A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison.”

The CNN article attempts to correct a fallacy but does so by injecting another fallacy. Let us start by issuing a single factual statement that adds some clarity to this matter. Neither Lewis Latimer nor Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. I’ll repeat this. Neither Lewis Latimer nor Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. The first fully functional light bulb was created in 1840 before either of these two men were born.

Many people were aware of this in the 1990s when more and more information became readily accessible via the Internet. Those of us studying and working in various engineering disciplines understood, early on, that most inventions come about due to many people working in parallel. In some cases, the year recorded for a particular invention is usually preceded by multiple years of similar devices appearing. This brings us to 1840.

It should be noted that the first electric light was produced in 1802 by Humphry Davy. Afterward, there were many attempts to design lights that could last long enough for practical use. As far as we are aware, most of them were failures. That was until 1840. Warren De la Rue developed a device consisting of a platinum filament enclosed in a glass vacuum bulb. Since this light lasted considerably longer than any of its predecessors, one could safely site this as the first functional light bulb.

The only problem with De la Rue’s device was that it was very expensive to manufacture. The question is, did we choose not to credit De la Rue for his invention because it was costly? I suppose we should disregard Charles Babbage’s contribution to computers because his Analytical Engine was ungodly expensive and considered a commercial failure.

Joseph Swan entered the game in 1850, and his initial designs were the same as the De la Rue light bulbs. He would spend the next 30 years working on an incandescent light source that was inexpensive and long-lasting. It’s clear, at this point, that the device was already invented. It just needed to be improved.

Thomas Edison didn’t start developing anything resembling a light bulb until 1878. He purchased a bulb patent from Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans one year later. He would secure his own patent on January 27, 1880. From here, things got much messier than people are willing to admit.

At this time, Lewis Latimer was working for a rival of Edison’s. Edison ran into trouble when William E. Sawyer claimed patent infringement in 1883. Around this time, Edison hired Latimer away from his competitor in order for him to assist with this litigation. Latimer was an expert witness in patent litigation and had already secured two patents of his own. Edison would eventually win the case and later merge his company with Joseph Swan, who had also secured a patent and commercially viable product before Edison.

In the end, the guys with the most money beat out the little guys. There’s nothing to be bitter about because that’s the way of the world. I just don’t like it when people choose to ignore historical facts because one historical figure had a better marketing strategy. The argument that Lewis Latimer didn’t invent the light bulb “he only improved it” is correct. It is also accurate to say that Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he only improved it. Sadly, if people repeat something enough, it will eventually become “fact.” Consider the number of people who still believe Christopher Columbus was the first to discover America.

Note: I’m developing a rating system that places a letter grade on published articles based on how factual they are. I’m not the first person to come up with this idea, but my system is unique compared to similar concepts. If this becomes useful in the future, I’m pretty sure I will be yet another guy who fades into obscurity, while some billionaire gets credit for most aspects of it.

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