The History of Innovation

David Cole is the president and CEO of the Science History Institute (SHI), which interprets the history of chemistry, chemical engineering, and the life sciences, collecting and sharing stories of innovators and scientific discoveries that shape our lives.

[Applause] [Music] so [Music] let's begin with david cole he's the ceo
of the science history institute his organization collects and shares stories of innovators in scientific discoveries that shape our lives the history of the united states parallels our never-ending ability to innovate it depends we depend on innovation the history of innovation shaped our past and frames our future here to talk about that and more please meet david cole thanks sir appreciate it [Applause] [Music] well good afternoon you all have had your break now right which means i'm assuming that you're well caffeinated you're feeling energized which is a very good thing because now you get the historian now you get the historian on the heels of the amazing jeremy siskind well uh like you i expect i've had a terrific day so far today i've been incredibly inspired by the innovations that we've heard about and by the performances but i'm a historian
i work for a science history institute and so i have questions about all this and my main question is why why is it that the united states this nation in particular has been so incredibly productive so generative of the kinds of innovative ideas and inventions that you've been hearing about during the course of this conference why is that what is the secret sauce that has made this country tick as a nation of inventors now i don't know about you but when i was in school uh i took american history we didn't spend a lot of time on the history of invention and when we did the history of invention of innovation in america was really presented as the history of a series of a handful of iconic figures brilliant presented as geniuses
typically almost invariably white men and they were presented to us in succession as sort of these these individual geniuses ideators innovators who had really almost unilaterally shaped the direction of the country's scientific and technological progress and typically the story would start with someone like benjamin franklin who legitimately was the man who captured lightning in a bottle right and invented everything from the franklin stove to the first subscription library kicked off the invention wave in america or someone like robert fulton and i'm showing you here an image of robert fulton's steamship steamboat the claremont chugging up the hudson river in the early 19th century and was arguably the first publicity stunt in the history of american invention i learned that story and i bet you remember the story of this person samuel f b morse who created his own publicity around the
unveiling of his invention the telegraph when he sat in washington and tapped out to baltimore a message saying what hath god wrought what hath god wrought and it was with the with the help of a fawning press it was easy to make the association that mr morse himself perhaps had deity-like qualities as an adventure as an inventor he was a hero and then of course there was this guy in the story right bathed in the light of of of the innovative spirit surrounded by the products of his inventive genius thomas edison is the avatar of invention the icon the mythic figure par excellence in the history of innovation this is the way i learned innovation history just a succession of these people benefiting all of us with with their brilliant creations and they did of course but what i want to suggest is that there's more to the story than that and you probably know that but but there are there are been multiple
episodes in american history that have really flown under the radar if you would under the public's radar under the radar of our school system that really were instrumental in fashioning this nation into a nation of inventors and it's three such moments that i want to talk to you about today the first of these concerns these two gentlemen now as you know hamilton jefferson these two guys didn't get along and in that hot suffocating summer of 1787 when they and their founder friends were in philadelphia hammering out the guidelines the structure the constitution for a new nation they couldn't agree on much of anything but these two guys as it happens did agree on one thing and it has again flown beneath the radar a bit they agreed that as much as anything else what this country needed to get the ball rolling to be safe secure and prosperous was a patent system
america must have the best patent system in the world and they agreed that it needed to be right up front in this document the constitution right up front in article one there needed to be a statement of support for a patent system that would exceed anything that existed in europe at the time and in fact it's right up front in article 1 section 8 of the us constitution we will create a patent office through a patent act that will promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discovery not exactly poetry right it's not the declaration but very very important instrumental to our success because it was the it was the language that led to the first patent act and the creation of the first u.s patent office so i'm showing you here a view of
pennsylvania avenue in the young capital of our country washington dc just sort of a rutted road at that time and the building to the right in the image is a place called blodget's hotel and in this rickety building not very big actually was housed the fledgling u.s post office and three rooms that contained our early rudimentary u.s patent office staffed by one and a half employees one and a half ftes and overseen by guess who thomas jefferson in his spare time and it was in this office that the flood of applications began to come in from all parts of the original states for patent protection early on the patent act did its job it secured a lot of protections to early inventors as a consequence americans of all stripes began to bring their applications to washington to secure protection for their inventions the the
the act did its job so well that pretty soon within a decade or so this office was overwhelmed and this process only got worse over the early decades of the 19th century and so we come to july of 1836 the moment that i will identify as my first under the radar moment when the pace of invention really accelerated in this country in july of 1836 congress said we've had enough we're an inventing country people are inventing everywhere they're applying for patents we haven't invested in this office look at this rickety building look at this small staff we need to do something about this so they passed the patent act of 1836 which provided for a much bigger staff of patent examiners that was going to help the process right process these applications for invention protection more quickly but they also appropriated money significant monies
to build a new building to house the patent office and what you may not know is that the building they commissioned would become the most the biggest and most beautiful public building in the united states and they commissioned it to sit on this plot of land that i've marked with a red square between f and g street in washington dc why did they pick that spot originally in monsieur law falls plan for washington dc this piece of land was reserved for a what was going to be a temple to american heroes america's equivalent of sacred ground a temple to american heroes but nothing had been built on that spot in several decades so the decision was made what's more emblematic of america what's more heroic in america than invention and inventors and so the decision was to build the brand new patent office
building the most glorious building in america on this spot and that's what they did you may know it today as the home of the national portrait gallery and the smithsonian american art museum but in the mid 19th century this building was known as the patent office but popularly known as something else if you had told someone in washington or anywhere else in america that you were going to the national gallery the national gallery you weren't going to the national gallery of art we didn't we know that didn't exist until the late 1920s right you were going to this building this was the national gallery and if you went to the national gallery funded by the patent act of 1836 and built over the succeeding three decades this is what you would have seen when you walked inside four gigantic halls lined floor to ceiling with glass cases
filled with models models of inventions patent models thousands of them that together and in real time convey the invention activity of a very busy nation it was all there and it was the greatest tourist attraction in our nation's capital in the 19th century and it was open on sundays and on sundays you'd put on your sunday best and you'd stroll through this gallery and you would see in real time what your fellow americans were ginning up what they were coming up with watching your country grow technologically scientifically literally in front of your eyes a remarkable thing that had no real counterpart in any other country this is the first really amazing idea the first big idea let's create something extraordinary a temple of invention where we can share out the products of our inventive minds amazing catalytic effect anybody who
went to washington and saw this would have been affected by it but then a crazy guy got the idea to take this one step further a crazy brilliant wildly eccentric inventor named rufus porter who was enamored of the patent system and he'd been to washington he'd seen this gallery and he said you know what we've got to go one better we've got to spread the news of invention and of patents all over the united states the average inventor in little towns and big cities needs to know what's going on i'm going to come up with a publication a newsletter that's going to do that work that's going to inform the public of what's being invented and perhaps spur them to do some inventing on their own and he came up with this publication scientific american scientific american was invented in 1845 and in fact i think the current editor-in-chief is with us today laura are you here somewhere
the longest publication and continue the publication that has been published continuously for the longest time in american history continuously since 1845 was invented as a broadsheet a newsletter to share the news of patents with a burgeoning country that was the purpose originally of scientific american and it affected americans and inspired americans all over the country on farms in small towns people who otherwise didn't have access to the american philosophical society or engineering societies or other sophisticated bodies of thinkers and inventors average americans could now access this information one of those average americans was this person a man named elijah mccoy elijah mccoy who's not well remembered by history today should be better remembered extraordinary life elijah mccoy was born in canada
in 1847. he was born the child of fugitive slaves who had escaped from kentucky to canada via the underground railroad and he had very enterprising parents and at the age of 15 this young african-american man was shipped off to scotland to be trained as a mechanical engineer when he came back he began an inventing career that was furious in its pace and in 18 he began work for the railroads and uh he was really just doing fairly fairly uh nondescript sort of tasks for the railroads maintaining steam engines and locomotives this sort of thing when he noticed that there was a problem it took a lot of time and a lot of energy to continuously lubricate the parts of the locomotive right to continuously lubricate these parts and he wondered based on his engineering training whether there was a better way could this process be automated
and in july of 1872 we have our second moment this is the moment when elijah mccoy patents his improvement in lubricators for steam engines why is this important it's important because not just of the person who invented it but because the idea was really enormously successful railroad companies around the united states adopted this idea incorporated it into their production into their processes saved enormous amounts of money and made elijah mccoy a pretty well-off person and it got so successful this lubricating this automated lubricating mechanism that um competitors sprang up all over the country saying we've got one of these mechanisms we've got a patent now we want to sell you our mechanism but this device was so crucial to the operation the successful operation of the railroads
that people were very risk averse and they said when they went shopping for this technology they said now we don't want any any imitators we only want the real mccoy we only want the real mccoy so what did this do for elijah mccoy right he's making money he's patenting things by the end of his life he's he'd he held 57 different patents but the fame that came that came with being the real mccoy uh not only catapulted him into a different sphere in society but it also sent a very powerful message the real mccoy did to a lot of other people in america who weren't white who weren't men anybody who weren't a native born american suddenly a whole population of people people of color women people born in foreign countries looked at the patent process and said ah
i can participate in that too i can participate in that too and we know for example that in the african-american population after 1872 there is a steady and marked rise in the number of patent applications sought and procured by african-american inventors in this country that went on for at least three generations very much catalyzed by this person a person who booker t washington later said was is the most important american african-american inventor in this country's history so this idea that's catalyzed by the example of the real mccoy elijah mccoy this idea that invention can be in some sense democratized that through the good work of the patent office and access to information about patents and opportunities to patent that that virtually anyone can get involved in the invention game this idea of democratizing invention
crystallizes in the late 19th century and was on full display at the greatest public events of the late 19th century and these were the world's fairs the 1876 fair in philadelphia and sort of the granddaddy of them all the 1893 world's colombian exposition in chicago where inventions by the real mccoy and a host of other inventors including women including people born abroad were on display to a nation hungry to see evidence of its own success and not disappointed i'm showing you now a view of the grand basin the centerpiece of the world's colombian exposition in chicago in 1893 the most expensive world's fair produced up to this point an event over the course of 1893 drew 27 million visitors 27 million visitors many of them repeat
of course but 27 million visitors from a national population of 64 million in 1890 that's how successful this fair was what did they come to see they came to see not just products of the great famous inventors the teslas the edisons but they came to see humble inventions from humble people from people on farms and in small towns who come up with new better mouse traps new ways of solving problems and these were on display by the thousands all across the mechanical exhibitions of the show competing with more well-known features of the show such as mr ferris's wheel cracker jack the zipper the list goes on right of inventions great inventions that made their debut at this show crowned perhaps by the competition that was played out for everyone to see in
the great mechanical exhibition the competition between mr edison and his general electric and mr westinghouse and mr tesla and westinghouse electric a competition that as you may know if you followed the so-called battle of the currents of the 1890s between direct current and alternating current the battle to electrify the world's fair and subsequently the united states was won by westinghouse using mr tesla's technology and it was westinghouse that created out of this fair literally a beacon a glowing beacon 100 000 lights that lit up the entire esplanade for a public morning noon and night and really in many ways symbolized the electrification of an entire country bent on on expanding its borders bent on on technological developments like the
world had never seen but in the midst of all this hoopla right and all of this self-congratulation about invention and and um and starting a new century with the promise of new innovations and new hope one person introduced a note of caution into the whole proceedings again a third moment okay kind of under the radar and this third person this this person was an obscure professor at that time at the university of wisconsin his name was frederick jackson turner and he came to the the annual meeting of the american historical association in chicago being held at the new art institute and he delivered this paper the paper is called the significance of the frontier in american history and in this paper he embedded what would later come to be called the frontier thesis essentially what he said
i'll sum it up here the existence of an area of free land it's continuous recession he's talking now about the american west and the advance of american settlement explain american development essentially what it was arguing is that from the time of european colonization of our shores up to 1890 economic progress technological progress scientific progress was largely explained by the existence of this wild as he would have put it untamed frontier never mind that there were people living there right this idea that the frontier was wild that it needed taming and that settlers american pioneers had the tools to do that taming and that this made them innovative and entrepreneurial along the way this explained america's success the success that was on display at the world's fair but now we've got a problem says
professor turner and the problem is that according to the census of 1890 the frontier is gone the frontier is closed there is no more frontier we filled it all in don't fence me in right we filled in all this frontier so the question now is what's going to drive american innovation going forward if the frontier the motive force according to professor turner is gone this is a a problem this is a question that preoccupies multiple generations of historians it becomes the question in american history departments for the next three generations the frontier thesis what about this how do we address it what happens next if the frontier is gone one person who was particularly interested in this question was this gentleman vannever bush vannever bush very famous successful
electrical engineer at mit in the first half in the middle of the 20th century who among other things ran the office of scientific research and development for the united states during world war ii the precursor really to the national science foundation in that it steered a lot of money from the federal government to academe to universities in particular to stimulate research in the initial instance that research that could help win the war when the war was coming to a conclusion bush in 1945 writes a very important paper he's concerned about what's going to happen next right what are we going to do when the war is over and this impetus for fueling investment in technology and scientific development goes away how do we keep the party going for everyone's benefit and he writes a paper
science the endless frontier the endless frontier in which he explicitly evokes frederick jackson turner's frontier thesis to argue that okay the physical frontier is gone we need to think of science as the new frontier that's the new frontier to which we like pioneers this is his language need to bring our tools our entrepreneurial spirit our explorers spirit and dive into science science and technology as the new land of challenge the new land of opportunity and we need to go all in the government needs to fund this this needs to be our new conquering of the frontier this will shape in his mind the 20th century and keep that american engine of progress going this is a very powerful idea and it's studded with references to pioneers and axes
and vanishing frontiers and bison and all of these metaphors that evoke uh what was believed to be the driving force behind american growth in the previous century well people in washington listened harry truman and the government did eventually fund the national science foundation in 1950 a lot of money in the 1950s and 60s as you heard in this morning's presentations was funneled into research and development in major american universities and became such a powerful idea that it's again it's incorporated into the speech making of this person so fast forward to 1960 and the democratic national convention where john f kennedy gives a speech that we now today call the new frontier speech in which he explicitly picks up the language of vannever bush and yes frederick jackson turner from chicago 1893 and he says the new the old frontier was the west
axes pioneers go get him spirit the new frontier is not exclusively but explicitly science and technology and he calls upon his fellow americans to take up that cause to see themselves as pioneers carving out and being stimulated by a new frontier and of course there's an explicit invocation of the space age well this call to action is taken up by a lot of people this desire to explore a new frontier no one more than this person robert wilson robert wilson was one of america's by the 1960s preeminent nuclear physicists he was a key figure in his 19 his 20s on the manhattan project he was from wyoming he had grown up on cattle ranches and he was from a little town of wyoming that i
kid you not is called frontier wyoming and the idea of the frontier as a stimulating force behind the growth of science and technology was very much on robert wilson's mind when he raised the money for recruited the scientists for something in the late 1960s which came to be called fermilab located where just outside of chicago why well there was money there but wilson wanted to make a point chicago is where great american urban civilization historically met the prairie met this stimulating force in some sense of the frontier he was very attracted to this site so here we have a situation where beginning in the 1960s fermi lab takes root just outside of chicago in batavia illinois and this massive campus is laid out on
reclaimed prairie prairie that would be cultivated and restored to its original condition and the idea was that this would stimulate the physicists who were working at the nation's largest and most advanced particle accelerator and to bring that point home the point about the importance of the prairie and the frontier as an instigator of science and progress wilson brought to the property and cultivated a herd of american bison they're still there and they serve as a reminder to all the scientists who work at this site of the spirit of the frontier that has always in this view animated scientific and technological progress in the united states in many ways it's a constant reminder of the spirit of 1893. that spirit
that like so many things captured in words was best captured by our friend mark twain who in the years just before the great exhibition in 1893 described this melia chicago in many ways almost as a microcosm of the country itself he described chicago as quote a city where they are always rubbing the lamp fetching up the genie and contriving and achieving new impossibilities i would argue that if today's proceedings have been any indication that spirit is alive and well at imagine solutions thank you very much [Applause] you