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  • Writer's pictureRichard Harvey

Inventions: who do we blame?

This final series of Gresham talks is about inventions and already, in previous lectures, I have encountered a few people who have been unfairly attributed to inventions. Or, occasionally, unfairly attributed to countries. Was Mr Algorithm an Uzbek? Certainly the Uzbek state is keen that he should be thought of as Uzbek although the evidence is a little scant. I remember visiting MIT as a young lecturer and being welcomed to Boston by the President of MIT which he described as "The home of Radar and Sonar." Well really! What a nerve!

But there is a real problem here -- modern electronic systems are created by large teams of people and systems such as GPS evolve over many decades. In the case of GPS at least one of the inventors was the chap who had the vision and the money but made very little technical input to the system. In my book that's OK too - funders and managers are people too and its great to name the whole team if you can.

But, and this is very significant caveat, I do insist that there is a lineage of technology or intellectual thought from the inventor into the invention. Thus, while I was talking about the History of Computers I heard some plaintive cries that I hardly mentioned the herculean efforts in computing made at Bletchley Park. That was deliberate. The Bletchley Park work was kept so secret for so long that it cannot have influenced the design of modern computers. It was important work, and certainly worth celebrating in its own right, but it cannot form part of the chain of development of the modern computer.

And so we come to the sad tale of Hedy Lamar. In case you had not heard, there are numerous claims that Hedy Lamarr, the thespian, invented wifi. As is noted in the blog of Dr Moravec, this claim is quite some way from the truth. And once you have read the Moravec blog what do you feel about Hedy Lamarr? Does the presence of considerable over-claiming enhance her reputation or diminish it? I think it diminishes it - she becomes the lady who was falsely claimed to invent wifi. A fraud or charlatan even. Whereas the truth is that she was a smart cookie, a polymath and a problem solver. Thus it is that well-meaning over-claims backfire. They have the opposite effect - they create a zero not a hero. So please, next time you name an inventor, think carefully about who you blame.

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