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Who was the inventor?

-July 31, 2013

Last night I was watching a program on the Smithsonian channel. It was about Leonardo Da Vinci and it basically set out to destroy the theory that he was a great Italian renaissance inventor who was way ahead of his time and had invented things that did not truly become reality for decades or centuries later. The program basically said that many of his ideas came from other people that he had contact with and that some of those inventions had been documented 50 years or so before the time of Da Vinci (the example they used was his siege engine, but I cannot remember the name of the guy who they said originally came up with the concept). They also said that many of his inventions were nothing more than enlargements of period toys in an attempt to make them more practical, but in many cases the enlargements were not valid or would not work. They called Da Vinci naive. An example of this was his drawings for a flying machine that some have said was a helicopter. They also claimed that many of his other flying machines were adaptations of things that had been tried by other people.

But interestingly they then said that in many cases he 1) made improvements to the original inventions that fundamentally made them a lot better or more practical and 2) documented the invention in a way that was a lot clearer as to how it was to be constructed or worked. This to me sounds like the work that most engineers do (incremental improvement) and one who can document things properly is a valuable asset to a team.

When we look back at many of the inventions that changed our lives, it was not a single person who invented them. There was no Eureka moment as has been attributed to Archimedes as he worked out how to measure the volume of an irregular object. Who invented the telephone? We now know it was not Alexander Graham Bell, but still, we like to attribute a name to advances. It is as if we want to glorify the eureka moments.

Does this negatively impact the engineering industry or does this have a positive influence on young people looking at a career in engineering? If we strive for being the inventor of something new and something that is used by everyone, then it is possible that we may become disillusioned and dissatisfied by the industry. But still we want to create those role models. Did Mark Zucherberg single handedly create Facebook? We want to write history that way even though in this case there is direct evidence to say that he not only did not create it, that he did not conceive of the idea himself. Instead he just put someone else’s idea into practice. Perhaps we should say that Zucherberg was a good engineer but not an inventor or innovator.

The big downside to this is that all of the engineers who actually work to make something buildable, practical or useable - go without recognition. How many times have you heard someone say, or have said yourself to a friend – that was something I did. I worked on that bit of xyz.

So, back to the Smithsonian program. Why did they have to do the story in a negative light? Why could they not have said how good an engineer he was in that he was capable of taking so many ideas from other people and finding ways to improve them, to be able to turn some of them into realities and to preserve many of those ideas for other people to be able to see and learn from?

If more engineers got recognition for their contribution would it help the industry?

Brian Bailey – keeping you covered

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