The Alleged Scarcity of Scientific Research

The myth has arisen that government research is made necessary by our technological age, because only planned, directed, large-scale “team” research can produce important inventions or develop them properly. The day of the individual or small-scale inventor is supposedly over and done with. And the strong inference is that government, as potentially the “largest-scale” operator, must play a leading role in even non-military scientific research.

This common myth has been completely exploded by the researches of John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman in their highly important recent work.

Taking sixt-one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century (excluding atomic energy, which we will discuss below), Jewkes et al. found that more than half of these were the work of individual inventors—with the individuals working at their own directions, and with very limited resources. In this category they place such inventions as: airconditioning, automatic transmission, bakelite, the ballpoint pen, catalytic cracking of petroleum, cellophane, the cotton picker, the cyclotron, gas refrigeration, the electron microscope, the gyro-compass, the helicopter, insulin, the jet engine, Kodachrome, magnetic recording, penicillin, the Polaroid camera, radio, the safety razor, titanium, and the zipper.

The jet engine was invented and carried through its early development, practically simultaneously, by Britons and Germans who were individual inventors, either completely unconnected with the aircraft industry or not specialists in engines. The gyro-compass was invented by a young German art historian. The bulk of the basic inventions for radio came from individual inventors unconnected with communications firms, some of whom created new small firms of their own to exploit the invention. The cyclotron was invented and partly developed by a university scientist, using simple equipment in the early stages. Penicillin was invented and partly developed in a university laboratory, and insulin was invented by a general practitioner who used a university laboratory.

Of the inventions studied that were achieved in industrial research laboratories, some arose in small firms, others were more or less accidental by-products of other work rather than preplanned and predirected. Terylene, the synthetic fiber, was discovered by a small research group in a firm not directly interested in fiber production. The process of continuous hot strip rolling of steel sheets was thought up by an individual inventor and then perfected in a small steel company. The LP record was invented by an engineer working on it as an individual sideline, and then was developed by another corporation.

In other cases, inventions in the research laboratories of large companies were made by small research teams, often centered around one outstanding man. Such was the case with Nylon at the Dupont Laboratories.

The twentieth century has produced some great independent inventors, creators of many important new devises. One of them, the Englishman S.G. Brown (components for telegraphy, telephony, radio, and gyro-compass) declared: “if there were any control over me or my work every idea would stop.” Brown never accepted financial aid for experimental work, or for producing a new device. How would such a man fare under the control of a government-directed research team, or one that was government-controlled? P.T. Farnsworth, great television pioneer, has always preferred to do his research on a small scale and with simple equipment. F.W. Lanchester, great British inventor in aerodynamics and engineering once wrote:

The salient feature of my career … (is that) … my work has been almost wholly individual. My scientific and technical work has been almost wholly individual. My scientific and technical work has never been backed by funds from external sources to any material extent.

Lee de Forest, eminent inventor of the radio vacuum tube, always found it difficult to work under any conditions short of complete autonomy. Sir Frank Whittle invented the jet engine with very slim resources. C.F. Kettering often positively preferred simple equipment. And R.M. Lodge recently warned:

The trend towards more and more complex apparatus should be carefully watched and controlled; otherwise the scientists themselves gradually become specialist machine-minders, and there is a tendency, for example, for an analytical problem to be passed from the microanalytical laboratory to the infra-red laboratory and from there to the mass spectrographic laboratory, whereas all the time all that was needed was a microphone and a keen observer.

The worthy individual inventor is far from helpless in the modern world. He may, in a free enterprise system, become a free-lance consultant to industry, may work on inventions on outside grants, may sell his ideas to corporations, may form or be backed by a research association (both profit and nonprofit), or may obtain aid from special private organizations that invest risk capital in small speculative inventions (e.g., the American Research and Development Corporations).

One very important reason for the success of the independent inventor, and his preservation from the dominance of large-scale government-controlled projects, stem from the very nature of invention:

“The essential feature of innovation is that the path to it is not known beforehand. The less, therefore, an inventor is pre-committed in his speculation by training or tradition, the better the chance of his escaping from the grooves of accepted thought.”

There are many recorded instances of the inventor winning out despite the scoffing of the recognized experts in the field, perhaps even emboldened because he didn’t know enough to be discouraged. One authority maintains that Farnsworth benefited from his lack of contact with the outside scientific world. Once, a professor gave him four good reasons why his idea—later successful— could not possibility work. Before the discovery of the transistor, many scientists claimed that nothing more could be learned in that field. Eminent mathematicians once claimed to prove logically that short-wave radio was impossible. Government-controlled research would undoubtedly rely on existing authorities, and thus would snuff out the searching of the truly original minds. Many of the great inventors of recent times could not have gotten a research job in the field for lack of expertise: the inventors of Kodachrome were musicians; Eastman, the great inventor in photography, was a bookkeeper at the time; the inventor of the ball-point pen was an artist and journalist; the automatic dialing system was invented by an undertaker; a veterinarian invented the pneumatic tire. Furthermore, there are many inventors who are part-time, or one-shot, inventors, who are clearly more useful on their own than as part of a research team.

The Alleged Scarcity of Scientific Research by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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