“History is written by those who win and those who dominate.” wrote Edward Said, one of the most prominent cultural figures of 20th century. Although his perspective is commonly thought within the context of power structures and the politics of historiography, Said’s avowal held true well before he was born.
“Fourth place is the worst.” is a popular phrase among Olympic athletes. Though when we look at the lives of the ‘defeated’ in technological history, the worst seems more likely to be second. The history of innovation is filled with harsh rivalries and tragedies. The ruthless fight between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the argument between Alexander Graham Bell and Antonio Meucci over the invention of the electromagnetic telephone, and the gothic story of dentist Horace Wells whose idea of surgical anesthetics is stolen by his former apprentice and colleague, Morton. Most of the time, we get introduced to the forgotten or losing sides of these battles with a dramatic tone, because people love anti-heroes; those who are subjected to injustice seem easier to empathize with as we converge their losses to ours. Media portrayals of these men largely differ from the portrayals of their opponents; according to Nolan’s The Prestige, Tesla was a mysterious, sentimental genius whereas Edison was a greedy businessman with a faint sense of technology and no sense of morals. According to Jean-Bernard Pouy, a French author of biographies of famous people for children, Antonio Meucci died in poverty because Graham Bell was favored by the patent board for he was American, and according to some blog, Dr. Horace Wells lost his mind and committed suicide because his idea was stolen by his ex-student.
There are a coherent set of realities that these stories veil with a romantic heroism. In his The Innovation Paradigm Replaced, management consultant Waldo Hitcher says, “Innovation is considered an art. [even though] Innovation cannot afford such exclusivity.” (Hitcher, 7). In other words, Hitcher considers the out of reach and ahead of their time attitudes of underappreciated inventors not to be a sign of superiority of their minds but to be their fatal error. Because before even ‘useful’, innovation needs to be within reach, its pace should align with social progress. It should be able to speak to the lay-people who are planned to benefit from what it has to offer. And the fatal error of historiography is to attribute life-altering inventions to single names, since, as opposed to literature, it roots for the winners. In fact, no invention, regardless of its scientific or recognized importance, can be the fruit of one single brain. Famous psychologist Karl Gustav Jung calls this collective consciousness whereas Antoine de Saint-Éxupery, writer of The Little Prince, sees a cultural compatibility principle at play behind the concept of shared sentiments and ideas which could both be the mother of every innovation and the executioner of each of them. Speaking of the discovery of the Little Prince’s home planet B-612, Saint-Éxupery writes; “This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909. On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said. Grown-ups are like that… (…) in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report.” Here is the exact point where the history of innovation proves that Said’s winners were not only persons or political institutions; but cultures, languages, needs, taboos, and even fashion choices.
During the eighteenth century, a time which gave birth to many inventions mentioned in this piece, men of science were seen and expected to act like magicians. Surgeries were performed in oppen galleries to allow the public watch doctors work miracles. In much the same fashion, inventors tested their inventions in city squares. This was a cruel practice for scientists. Even the slightest mishap led to mockery of years of work, slightest technical problem caused valuable inventions to be abandoned for years, or worse, sent down the dark well of forgetfulness. Because the public also rooted for the winners. Any flaw in the mechanism, hinted at its mundaneness, its human-madeness though people wanted to believe that innovations were mysterious and divine, matching the omniscience and omnipotence of their deities.
Today, on some conspiracy theory websites, you may find people claiming that the pyramids were dropped there by aliens, or if you come towards the Middle East, ginnies. So, why do people seem so keen to believe in “Eureka!” moments, and to endure mystery? Because understanding requires time, effort, and commitment. Also, believing in muses protect us from the burdensome realization that, following similar steps, we can create similar things, the next chain of innovation. Myths keep us from tiring creativity. An idea born out of an instantaneous muse and epiphany is more alluring than twenty years of hard and consistent work as the fake origin story of eBay shows. When the enterprise got insufficient media attention, an employee tells reporters that Omidyar founded the site for his fiancé” who collected candy dispensers. Innovation gets de-mystified only when it becomes a part of everyday reality, when it is used, and to get it used depends on many cultural codes, communication and presentation methods. Proven usefulness shatters myths, but until then, people resist to recognizing the accumulative history of innovation written with sweat.
Both true innovation and the innovation myth are owed to human needs. The never-ending needs for efficiency and an authority that watches us and maintains order. It is as if we shout our questions to the sky-dome above, and a reply echoes back.