Today is the 106th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s flight at Kitty Hawk. The event is considered the first-ever motorized flight, and the Wright brothers are considered the inventors of the airplane, but those distinctions are disputed.German Karl Jatho claimed that he successfully flew his own plane in August and November 1903. However, Jatho did little to publicize his flights, and the world knew nothing about it when the Wrights took flight that December.
Disputes over famous inventions are fairly common. In a 2008 article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell examined the phenomenon of ideas being developed by different people in different areas at the same time.
Many famous inventions and theories, he notes, came in “multiples”: Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray inventing the telephone, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz inventing calculus, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovering evolution, and Elwood Haynes and the Duryea brothers building the gas-powered car.
In most cases, history remembers only one of the inventors. Similarly, inventions that developed over years of work by multiple people are usually credited to one man who made a famous advancement.
Thomas Edison didn’t invent the incandescent light bulb; he was the first to create one that was practical for everyday use. Guglielmo Marconi didn’t invent the wireless telegraph; he was the first to send a signal across the Atlantic. Alexander Cartwright didn’t invent baseball; he and his fellow members of the Knickerbocker Club modified the rules of contemporary stick-and-ball games to make it more like modern baseball.
Credit for an invention often depends on the publicity it received. Whereas Jatho’s flights were known by only a handful of people, the Wright brothers’ flight was reported across the world and its coverage launched an era of aviation.
In many cases, an inventor’s self-promotion is as significant as his ingenuity. As the satirical newspaper The Onion recently quipped, although Edison did not invent the light bulb, he did “devise the groundbreaking new process of taking ideas pioneered by other scientists and marketing them as his own.”