Who invented the internet?
To answer that seemingly simple question you basically have two options: you can go on for hours explaining the hundreds of people and institutions that contributed crucial advancements to the way that the internet operates, or you can just say Vint Cerf. Or Leonard Kleinrock. Or Tim Berners-Lee.
People have been fighting for decades over who invented the net. Some will tell you that Vint Cerf’s work on its underlying protocols – TCP/IP – was its true beginning. Others will go back further in history and tell you that Leonard Kleinrock’s work on queuing theory was the real birth. Some may scoff at the idea of conflating the web and the internet by suggesting Tim Berners-Lee, but in multiple-choice tests of the future the “right” answer will be determined by the next hundred years of how historians choose to tell that story.
The truth is that history, like innovation, is messy. What starts as an idea for a product, or a service, or an institution is dependent upon thousands of forces seen and unseen, recognised and unrecognised, historical and contemporary. In reality, the internet was invented by thousands of people. To buy into the other version of history means you buy into the “myth of the lone genius” – an idea that creates simple, even entertaining narratives, but which does a great disservice to the thousands of people who have invented our modern world.
Nowhere is the perpetuation of this myth greater than in the work of the late Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla – the man, we are often told, who invented everything from radar to radio and domestic electricity supplies. The fanaticism surrounding Nikola Tesla has reached fever pitch in recent months, driven by new films, endless blog posts and a high-profile effort to fund a museum dedicated to the legendary inventor. But the byproduct of this effort to reposition Tesla in the scientific canon has been the creation of many more myths about the man – myths that actually harm our understanding of history and the history of innovation.
It’s the taking part
Take a web comic called "Why Nikola Tesla Was The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived", published last year by a website called The Oatmeal and instantly shared by thousands across the web. The strip, created by Matthew Inman, is an entertaining look at Tesla’s life and shows many of the ways in which he was perhaps smarter, more altruistic and generally a better human being than his contemporaries.
But a couple of sentences into the comic, the myth begins: “In a time when the majority of the world was still lit by candle power, an electrical system known as alternating current was invented and to this day is what powers every home on the planet. Who do we have to thank for this invention that ushered humanity into a second industrial revolution? Nikola Tesla.”
The problem with this version of history is that Tesla wasn’t the only person working on AC technology. Concurrent with Tesla’s major breakthroughs in AC in the mid-1880s, an Italian inventor named Galileo Ferraris developed a similar system – something we can likely chalk up to simultaneous invention.
Charles Bradley was another inventor working on AC and was granted patents for his work on both two-phase and three-phase systems. Friedrich Haselwander worked on AC in Germany and is sometimes credited as the first to use a three-phase system in 1887. William Stanley and Elihu Thomson would also contribute immensely to the work of alternating current technologies during this time. The list goes on and on.
Tesla’s development of AC is undoubtedly important for the evolution of our modern electrical world. But to pretend that he alone invented this system strikes me as absurd.
It is the same story with radar. To buy into the idea that Tesla was the inventor of radar is to discount the contribution of German physicist Heinrich Hertz, wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, and German inventor Christian Hulsmeyer, who all did work in the area before Tesla. It also disregards Robert Watson Watt and the many others who refined the system after Tesla’s work.
Ditto radio transmission.
Tesla fanatics may interpret my argument as saying that he does not deserve recognition for his vital work – and nothing could be further from the truth. Tesla made countless important contributions to the world, but he was not the sole “inventor” of these technologies. Many people did work in these areas before Tesla, just as many people contributed to them long after he died.
Essence of innovation
You may think that arguing over how much credit a 19th Century inventor deserves for his work is esoteric and of no relevance to the modern world. But the question of who is the sole inventor of something is an important question. So important that it can net you millions of dollars.
Last April, a judge in California ordered electronics giant Samsung to pay $1 billion to iPad maker Apple. The California firm had sued Samsung on the grounds that it had copied the look and overall feel of the iPhone and iPad. Since the original judgment that $1bn figure has been cut in half, but the central question remains: who invented the iPad?
Here, the court proceedings offered up some fascinating examples. Samsung, for example, cited a scene in Stanley Kubrick's classic 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which shows two men watching BBC 12 on devices that could very well be interpreted as iPad.
Tesla and the lone inventor myth
Why our simplistic view of science and our desire to make heroes does a great disservice to the thousands of people who have invented our modern world.
Who invented the internet?