It takes a village to innovate

Among the several things I memorized in school, two of them were lies or half-truths at best:

1. James Watt invented the steam engine

2. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. Three luminaries had already harnessed steam for performing useful work before him – Thomas Newcomen, Thomas Savery and Denis Papin (who also invented the pressure cooker). Watt improved upon their existing designs to make his engine more efficient, and thereby commercially viable outside of coal mining.

Let me know if any of these names ring a bell:
Marcellin Jobard (Belgium)
William Grove, Fredrick de Moleyns, Warren de la Rue and Joseph Wilson Swan (England)
Alexander Lodygin (Russia)
Heinrich Göbel (Germany)
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (France)
Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans (Canada)
Hiram Maxim and John Starr (USA)

Every single one of those people (among others) published, produced or patented the idea of a glowing filament in a bulb of glass. The efforts of these contemporaries inspired Edison’s ‘light-bulb’ moment. Nevertheless, Edison deserves a fair share of the credit (but not all of it) because he combined the light bulb with a system of generating and distributing electricity to provide a complete solution.

Our textbooks often credit inventions to singular persons. But that is because we cannot memorize the names of the entire community that made the contribution.

If you wish to foster innovation, start by building a community around the problems you wish to solve.

Inspiration: How innovation works

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