Today I’m looking at five inventions that changed the world, and common misconceptions about who is responsible for them.

Name the inventors of the following items:

  • Telephone
  • Machine Gun
  • Radio
  • Automobile
  • Light Bulb

Did you come up with Alexander Graham Bell, Dr. Richard Gatling, Guglielmo Marconi, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison? Okay, let’s look at each of these:

Telephone – Everyone knows the Alexander Graham Bell story and has heard the famous line, “Mr. Watson. Come Here. I need you.” But in “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret” Seth Shulman tells the story only real telephony geeks know – Elisha Gray was first.

Machine Gun – The Gatling gun did fire continuously, but required a person to spin a crank. Gatling guns are therefor not automatic (“machine”) guns.  The action of an automatic weapon is cycled by the previously fired round, requiring the user to simply hold the trigger (or press is repeatedly, in the case of so-called semi automatics). The first true automatic was the Maxim Gun, a recoil operated gun designed by Sir Hiram Maxim. John Browning is largely responsible for the design of modern gas operated actions.

Radio – Marconi is often called the “father of radio” and certainly was a big player in the development, but at best he has to share credit with Nikola Tesla, David E. Hughes, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Alexander Stepanovich Popov, Thomas Edison, James Clerk Maxwell, Mahlon Loomis, Oliver Joseph Lodge, and William Henry Ward. Ward was in fact the first person granted a US patent in wireless telegraphy. Tesla probably has the best claim here.

Automobile – Like the radio, the car is the result of a lot of inventors working independently.  It’s probably not fair to give any one person credit for creating the car.  But one thing is clear – Henry Ford gets no credit in this department – not for inventing the car or the assembly line. In fact, Ford wasn’t even the first company to use assembly lines to manufacture cars.  That distinction belongs to Ransom Olds of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. Although a large number of people contributed to the invention of the automobile, if you had to pick one name it would probably be Karl Benz (as in Mercedes-Benz).

Light Bulb – If you said Thomas Edison here I’m going to give you partial credit, but at the very least Sir Joseph Wilson Swan deserves equal credit. Swan had a British patent a full year before Edison’s American patent, which was essentially a copy of the Swan design.  Edison’s improvements made the bulbs last longer and made them more economically viable products.

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