The Post-Heroic Generation: American Independent Inventors, 1900-1950

Eric S. Hintz
University of Pennsylvania

My dissertation examines the changing fortunes of American independent inventors in the first half of the 20th century. Historians have typically assumed that the rise of industrial research labs at firms like General Electric and AT&T signaled an end to the era of heroic independent inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. However, a close look at the historical U.S. patent data shows that patents granted to individual inventors outnumbered corporate patents until the early 1930s and represented nearly 50 percent of total patents through the 1950s. Thus, my dissertation examines how a lesser-known “post-heroic” generation of inventors navigated the evolving business practices and political exigencies of the early 20th century, a period of expanding corporate R&D, the Great Depression, and two world wars. I argue that these post-heroic inventors remained an important source of innovations from 1900 to 1950 and constituted a vibrant professional community, albeit one whose members were less famous than their earlier heroic brethren. I pursued my PACHS-supported research across four domains, examining (1) the papers of individual inventors; (2) the papers of business firms; (3) the records of professional organizations; and (4) inventor-oriented trade publications. I examined the records of several independent inventors across the PACHS institutions, including Elihu Thomson at APS; Elmer Sperry, Hudson Maxim, and E. G. Bailey at Hagley; and Samuel Ruben at CHF. I found that these independent inventors, though active members of scientific and engineering societies, were not typically involved in professional organizations geared toward inventors. The inability of independent inventors to form and sustain their own supportive professional institutions undoubtedly contributed to their diminished status and visibility. At Hagley, I examined the records of the Du Pont Company and the SS White Dental Manufacturing Company to understand how firms of different sizes utilized both outside inventors and their own corporate labs to pursue new innovations. I also examined the papers of two pro-R&D groups, the Directors of Industrial Research and the National Association of Manufacturers. Through advertising, speeches, pamphlets and other forms of public relations, these groups helped spread the gospel of science-based industrial research while denigrating the “tinkering” methods of independent inventors. On the other hand, the records of the Franklin Institute’s Committee on Science and the Arts (CSA) revealed an organization heartily committed to supporting individual inventors. For example, in the late-19th century the CSA provided objective examinations of new inventions, sponsored inventors’ fairs and exhibitions, and awarded prizes and medals to outstanding inventors. However, as the Franklin Institute’s mission evolved in the early- 20th century, the CSA offered fewer direct services beyond the granting of medals, eliminating a crucial set of institutional supports for inventors. Finally, at Penn’s High Density Storage library, I poured over 50-year runs of inventor-oriented trade journals like Scientific American and Popular Mechanics. These journals helped me understand how independent inventors stayed current, advertised their inventions, and learned of new opportunities. The advertisements in these journals also demonstrated how large firms like Du Pont, Kodak and General Electric celebrated their industrial research capabilities, helping to create a public perception that independent inventors had been supplanted by corporate researchers as the primary source of innovations in the early-20thcentury. I am grateful to PACHS and its member institutions for their financial support and enthusiasm for my project. I would also like to thank the many archivists, librarians, and fellow researchers across PACHS who offered their helpful suggestions and expertise. As an emerging scholar, it has been incredibly rewarding to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars who share my interest in the history of invention and innovation. In this respect, the PACHS fellowship program not only contributes crucial financial resources to help scholars like me, it also fosters a vibrant and enduring intellectual community.