The release of the new movie “Flash of Genius” has brought the subject of How Inventors Always Get Screwed into the daily media diet.
BTW, if you don’t know about Edwin Armstrong, you should read Lawrence Lessing’s (he’s not the Internet Lessig) 1956 biography, “Man of High Fidelity.” The book is sadly out of print (old paperback copies are selling for $25.00 on Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN)). ortunately, though, the complete text of the book has been posted here by the Internet Archive…
Anyway, if you think American technological prowess begins and ends with the Mac and iPhone, you owe it to yourself to read this tale of a true genius struggling against those out to steal the fruits of his brilliance. In Armstrong’s case, his nemesis was RCA impresario David Sarnoff….
RCA — along with Westinghouse and a host of other companies — infringed Amstrong’s patents for years. He was less lucky than Kearns, though. He committed suicide by walking out of a hotel window in 1954…
The point I want to make is that people who think modern technology sprung fully realized in some easy and fun way from the landscaped corporate vistas of Silicon Valley don’t know squat. Every development from Maxwell, Edison, and Tesla; up through Marconi and De Forest; to Eckert, Mauchly and the present day has not come without a humongous struggle. (For another great tale of inventor screwing — tellingly, also involving RCA — read Tube: The Invention of Television by David Fisher, about the travails of Philo Farnsworth.)
The importance of this topic in the current scenario cannot be over-stated. Our leaders keep telling us that we’re going to innovate our way out of the current energy / economic / environmental crises. Maybe somebody needs to remind our leaders what really happens to the individuals who produce the innovations we’re counting on to reshape the world.
If they really want to “transform America” (as one of the major party candidates stated upon launching his campaign), then they need to take a long hard look at how individual genius suffers in a world dominated by monolithic corporate capitalism.