American Independent Inventors in an Era of Corporate R&D

This paper argues that America’s individual inventors have persisted alongside corporate R&D labs as an important source of inventions. During the nineteenth century, heroic individual inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell created entirely new industries while achieving widespread fame. However, by 1927, a New York Times editorial suggested that teams of corporate scientists at General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont had replaced the solitary “garret inventor” as the wellspring of invention. But these inventors never disappeared. Indeed, lesser-known inventors such as Chester Carlson (Xerox photocopier) and Samuel Ruben (Duracell batteries) continued to develop important technologies throughout the twentieth century. Nevertheless, independent inventors gradually fell from public view as corporate brands increasingly became associated with high-tech innovation. Focusing on the years from 1890 to 1950, the paper documents how American independent inventors competed (and sometimes partnered) with their corporate rivals; adopted a variety of flexible commercialization strategies; established a series of short-lived professional groups; lobbied for fairer patent laws; and mobilized for two world wars. After 1950, the experiences of independent inventors generally mirrored the patterns of their predecessors and they remained overshadowed during corporate R&D’s postwar golden age. However, the independents enjoyed a resurgence at the turn of the twenty-first century, as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner heralded a new generation of heroic inventor-entrepreneurs. Drawing on the records of inventors and firms, this paper recovers the stories of a group once considered extinct. It challenges long-held assumptions about the corporatization of invention (Hughes, 1989; Hounshell, 1996) and extends a growing literature that acknowledges the persistent contributions of individual inventors (Lamoreaux-Sokoloff, 1999; Nicholas, 2010).