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History: Online Rantings

Inventors and Discoverers

I take a dim view of spending time remembering the inventor of this or the discoverer of that, because they hardly ever are the true inventor or discoverer of whatever it is being invented or discovered. Instead, most likely, the inventor happens to be someone who could make it to the patent office faster or who had excellent marketers working for him.

Most of the time, inventions were available for everyone to use and no one really cared about getting credit for inventing something that was helping out everyone in town. Most inventors were just content to know they had improved society somewhat and made the world a better place to live. Like the guy who invented the plow. We have no idea who he was, but he was responsible for perhaps the most critical invention humanity has ever seen.

That's assuming, of course, that only one guy invented the plow. It's quite possible many other people invented the plow independently in other parts of the world, and they all stood by, smiling, as happy farmers made use of their invention. Or perhaps one did try to claim credit, but since writing had not yet been invented, his deed was never recorded in the record books, there not being any record books to record stuff in. In the long run, while it would be wonderful to give credit to the first person who actually did come up with the idea for the plow, it's not all that important. What is more important is what was made possible because of the invention of the plow. With the plow, urban settlements became possible and with them, organized governments. OK, so who invented urbanization and organized government?

Well, that isn't all that important, either. Lots of different cultures developed permanent settlements and centralized governments. To sing the praises of how one civilization had a king a few hundred years before anybody else did is ludicrous. So what if they were first? They didn't win any sort of special prize for that.

So what about great minds like Newton and Edison? Surely, they innovated and invented like few other people ever did on this world. I'll grant that these men were exceptional, even geniuses, but one must understand they did not operate in an intellectual vacuum. Both these men did not operate alone. They worked with many fine minds of their day, surely developing their ideas after contact with these individuals. Yes, they ultimately took credit for many things, but that's just it: they took credit. That doesn't mean they did these things single-handedly. It means they either supervised or made significant contributions to what they are credited with inventing.

Look closer at Thomas Edison. His true genius was not in inventing, but in marketing and selling those inventions. Edison didn't just make things up. He made companies to handle the things his workshop turned out. He made sure he patented his inventions and he made sure they sold, and sold well. Many of his inventions were actually refinements of earlier technologies, making them run better. He didn't invent the electric light bulb: he made it practical. What we do now with the poor shlub who invented the light bulb? It's too late now. Edison already has all of fame and glory and credit for that invention, and we only have so much space in the History books. Better to stick with the big name we can already recognize than upset the apple cart and put in the name of some nobody, even though that nobody may be the proper person to give credit to.

What value do we get from studying someone like Edison or Newton? We can certainly learn from their examples. If you want to make money and be recognized, make sure you have a good publicist. We can also learn from the example of Nicolai Tesla, who was just as creative as Edison or Newton, but because he didn't get as much financial backing, about all we remember him with is the Tesla coil, a unit of electrical power, and a 1980's heavy metal band. Edison, on the other hand, is remembered in the names of companies like ConEd, or California Edison, or other major electrical conglomerates. Big difference.

Enough of inventors. Time to give to the discovers their turn. In world history, we remember the discovers only from a Western European point of view. There were some very important Arabic and Chinese discovers, for instance, but because their discoveries were not used as the foundation for vast world empires, we tend to not place much emphasis on the work they did. Had they acted as scouts for a major invasion force, as Columbus or Balboa did, we would probably be learning their names right now. Possibly in a different language...

That's really the point of learning who discovered what. Not so much as who was necessarily first to a given area, but who was first to open the way for another culture to militarily, culturally, and religiously subjugate a new region. In this context, Columbus is of vastly greater importance than Leif Ericsson. After Ericsson came failed Norse settlements. After Columbus came Spanish domination of the new world. Again, a big difference.

The personal stories of Columbus and Ericsson are worthy of study, but really don't amount to anything of value in the broader context of world history. Columbus is the name we remember not because he was first to get to America, the natives here having beaten him to that claim by at least 20,000 years; not because he was the first European to get to America, Ericsson and possibly many others having gotten here several hundred years earlier; not even because he was the first European during the Renaissance to get to America, because there is evidence to show that Portuguese sailors had already discovered Brazil several years before Columbus stepped ashore in the West Indies: but because the consequences of his actions led to one of the most dramatic changes the world has ever seen.

What about the other Spanish explorers? They are answers to trivia questions, nothing more. Those who conquered, like Cortes or Pizarro, are important because the consequences of their conquests are so dramatic. If the Vikings had plundered Mexico and Peru in the 1300's and then later founded colonies in Africa, we would learn the names of their explorers and conquerors. But they didn't, so we don't.

Really, we don't need to learn any names or dates. What we really need to know are the critical events that shaped our world and gave us the situations we face today in politics, diplomacy, and society. But, just having a mass of historical movements without any other details is confusing. Strangely, adding a bunch of names and dates to the mass of facts makes them flow in a logical sense and allows for better understanding. It's all to do with learning cause and effect and stuff like that. Tells the whole story.

Assuming we have sufficient details to tell the story, that is.

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