Top 5 Invention and Discovery Controversies
Posted on Nov 16, 2011

5. The Invention of Radio

There were a number of scientists who played crucial roles in the race to first transmit and receive radio signals, but the main invention controversy has always centered on the famed Serbian-Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla and the Italian Guglielmo Marconi. As early as 1891, Tesla was giving speeches on the possible practical uses of radio waves in mass communication, and he was even said to have demonstrated a wireless system in 1893. But Tesla, always hampered by a poor business sense, failed to capitalize on radio as a marketable tool, and though he claimed to have made 50-mile radio transmissions as early as 1895, none were ever verified. Marconi, meanwhile, applied for a patent on a radio system as early as 1896. In 1897, he formed his own wireless company and became the first man to commercialize radio. He was also the first to make a transatlantic radio transmission in 1901, though this claim has been disputed. What’s more, Marconi is believed to have based most of his radio designs on ideas that had already been widely described by Tesla and another inventor named Oliver Lodge. Tesla was the first of the two to receive a patent for his radio transmitter, but this was later overturned in a controversial decision and given to Marconi. Over 40 years later, this decision was itself overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after countless legal challenges. Tesla had died only months earlier.

Who Deserves the Credit?

To give sole credit to either of these men is a grand generalization, but of the two, Tesla certainly seems the more important figure. There’s no argument that Marconi was the more business savvy of the two inventors, and his practical implementation of radio definitely makes him a major player in its creation. But it was Tesla who was most responsible for the ideas and the technical expertise that truly made radio transmission possible, and if anyone deserves the title of “the father of radio,” it’s him.

4. The First Flying Machine

Sometimes the controversy isn’t just over who invented a certain technology, but over what it was they invented. Such is the case with the so-called “first flying machine,” the exact definition of which has never been agreed upon. Some would charge that any craft that got airborne should be considered a flying machine, including hot air balloons and airships. On this basis, the true father of flight would be Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, who became the first person to make a manned balloon flight in 1783. Others argue that a true flying machine must be heavier than air, which would disqualify balloons. By these terms, the honor would probably go to England’s George Cayley, who first flew a glider in 1853. Still, the most common definition of an actual flying machine is any manned aircraft that is powered and controlled by onboard mechanics, in which case Orville and Wilbur Wright are usually given the credit for their 1903 flight in North Carolina. But even then there is room for debate. Germany’s Karl Jatho and Gustave Whitehead and New Zealand’s Richard Pearse each made their own manned flights in the early 1900s, all before the Wright brothers.

Who Deserves the Credit?

According to the modern definition of a “flying machine,” it would seem that the Wright brothers are correctly considered to be flight’s true pioneers. They might not have been “first in flight,” as North Carolina license plates like to proclaim, but they did perfect a lot of the technology that is still used in aviation today. What ultimately sets them apart from the others is how controlled and prolonged their flights were. Richard Pearse got airborne before the Wright Brothers, but his plane crashed into a hedge. Meanwhile, Jatho’s plane only got ten feet off the ground, and Whitehead’s claims, while interesting, are largely unsubstantiated. If anyone deserves to share some of the honor with the Wrights it is the British glider pilot Cayley, who discovered many key aviation forces like drag and thrust, and who has often been called the unsung “father of aviation.”

3. The Discovery of HIV

In the early ‘80s, AIDS was already recognized as a serious epidemic, and research teams were soon formed to try and isolate the particular virus that caused it. Of these, two groups—one led by the French scientist Luc Montagnier and the other by the American Robert Gallo—nearly simultaneously published papers in 1983-4 describing the virus we now know as HIV. A controversy soon erupted in the scientific community over which group had more of a claim to the discovery. Montagnier’s group had published first, but Gallo’s description was more detailed and specifically linked the virus to AIDS. The fervor over ownership of the discovery centered on more than just prestige, since the country responsible would be able to claim the patent for an AIDS test. Soon, both the French and American governments were involved in what was often a bitter dispute. There were even cries of foul play, as Gallo and company were charged and later cleared of having “misappropriated” a sample of the virus they received from Montagnier’s institute.

Who Deserves the Credit?

Today, it’s widely agreed that both parties made major contributions to the discovery of HIV. Montagnier’s group published first, and as such they are commonly regarded as having first isolated the virus, but Gallo is credited with developing a great deal of the research and technology that linked it to AIDS. The two scientists themselves are now on amicable terms, and they’ve frequently worked together over the years. Still, this hasn’t stopped awards committees from picking favorites: in 2008, only Montagnier was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the discovery of HIV, an honor which even he noted should have been shared with Gallo.

2. The Invention of the Light Bulb

America’s Thomas Edison is popularly regarded as the pioneer of the incandescent light bulb, but the list of other possible contenders is long and goes back more than 70 years before his 1879 patent. The British inventor Humphry Davy is said to have created a crude electric light in 1802, and by 1840 inventors like Warren De la Rue were already using vacuum tubes and experimenting with different types of filaments. Just who of these early pioneers deserves to be called the father of the light bulb has always been hard to say. From 1840-1880, patents were filed for a number of different prototypes. Of these the most famous undoubtedly belong to Edison and England’s Joseph Wilson Swann, who first began researching the light bulb in the 1870s. Swann caused in stir in 1878, after his light bulb prototype was demonstrated in Newcastle, and he holds the honor of owning the first house to ever be illuminated with electric lights. Edison, meanwhile, didn’t even begin to address the issue of inventing a light bulb until 1878, but when he did, he had soon made major breakthroughs. Chief among them was his discovery of a longer lasting filament, first made from carbon and later from carbonized bamboo. It was only then that light bulbs went from lasting mere hours to days and even months.

Who Deserves the Credit?

Edison’s discoveries undoubtedly led to more modern and efficient light bulbs, but to list him as their sole inventor is a vast overstatement. Even his own patents describe his invention as merely an “improvement in electric lights.” His was the first reliable light bulb, but when talking about who invented the first light bulb, the credit must go to England’s Warren de la Rue, who was the first to run electricity through filament in a vacuum sealed tube, a feat he accomplished some 38 years before Edison in 1840.

1. The Invention of the Telephone

Your elementary school teacher might have told you that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, but the true story is much more complicated, and stands as the most famous of all these controversies. There are a number of inventors involved in the mix, among them the Italian Innocenzo Manzetti, who some say might have built a prototype phone in the 1860s, and Johann Philipp Reis, who made an early microphone that could transmit sound called the “Reis Telephone” in 1861. But the main competition has always been between Scotland’s Bell, an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci, and the American Elisha Gray. Meucci invented a communication device in the 1850s, and his 1871 patent is one of the earliest for any kind of voice transmitter. The real controversy, though, has always been between Bell and Gray, both of whom filed patents for a telephone on the exact same day in 1876. Critics of Bell often cast him as a shrewd businessman (which he undoubtedly was) who stole several of Gray’s ideas, and it has even been argued that Bell bribed a patent office employee and added in several key parts to his inventions days after he first filed it. These claims were partly vindicated in the 1880s, when a patent officer testified in court that Bell had paid him in order to look at Gray’s plans.

Who Deserves the Credit?

Today, popular opinion on who really invented the telephone depends on where and who you ask. In the U.S., it’s either Gray or Bell; in Italy, it’s Meucci. The controversy eventually led to lawsuits, and it was still being argued as recently as 2002, when the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the contributions of Meucci in the invention of the telephone—a resolution which was countered only days later when the Canadian government officially recognized Bell. In the end, this is yet another case where several inventors deserve partial credit. Bell was the savvy businessman who was able to perfect and market what would become a world-changing invention, but there’s little doubt that Gray and Meucci both deserve to be recognized with him as the real inventors of the telephone.


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