Friday, December 30, 2005

Famous Engineers

The period from 1876 to 1934, which coincides with the founding of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and ends with Edison's death is what I call “The Golden Age of Inventing”. In my opinion, no other period saw the introduction of as many culturally revolutionizing inventions as that window in time. The telephone, the airplane, radio, mechanical refrigeration, phonograph, assembly lines, and of course, the light bulb – all of these items changed society to an extent never seen before or after.

Golden Age/Edisonian era inventions were often the products of individual inventors, at least to the extent that almost all of the first half century’s inventions have “fathers” that is, people can actually name their inventor.

For example, the fathers of the airplane? The Wrights. Telephone? Bell. Refrigeration? Willis Carrier. The father of radio? Marconi (or Tesla? Okay, bad example.) Antibiotics? Alexander Fleming. Plastic? Leo Baekeland. The modern rocket? Robert Goddard. Assembly line? Henry Ford. Major inventions frequently had a face and name associated with it. Individual engineers and scientists were well known, even famous.

But after Edison, the face of inventing and innovation changed. Few second half twentieth century inventions of sweeping importance have a father (or mother), I think because individual inventors were swept away by the tide of industrial specialization. Innovation and invention became the province of committees, of corporate R & D departments, of product teams, of task forces.

Who invented the Internet? The I-pod? The digital computer? The CD player? The faces behind these are vague at best, or very subjective.

I asked some people I know to name one famous living scientist or engineer. Most couldn’t think of even one. Answers I got were: Carl Sagan (dead), Q - the gadget guy in James Bond movies (fictional), and Scotty on Star Trek (fictional and dead).

So, are there any? Please send comments with names of any real and living engineer or scientist with a level of fame on par with say, Gordi LaForge, or John Frink.


chickenncookies said...

Come on. "Invented the Internet?" Tim Berners-Lee has achieved some fame for "inventing" the web while at NCSA, but that's about as close as you'd get to what I suspect you really mean by "the Internet."
Jonathan Ive was most responsible for the design of the iPod, and contines to do some fantastic work at Apple now.
Both of these people, if history is fair, will likely come to represent the "fathers" of life-changing inventions. Okay, maybe less Ive than Berners-Lee, but the day is still young.
I think that you underestimate the storytelling that happens 100 years after people realize that an "invention" has changed the world. It is simply too soon to attribute the inventions that have changed our lives to any single person, not because there isn't a "father" or a "mother" but because we haven't started telling tales about it yet.
Edison was as innovative when it came to PR and ensuring that his inventions were adopted as local "standards" as he was at inventing things in the first place. He's a "father" because he was busy ensuring that his legacy remained in place while he was still alive. I imagine that Bill Gates has the same popular hold in people's imagination, and may well go down as the "father" of some aspect of technology.
Lastly, I suspect the same people that you asked to name a modern scientist couldn't have told you who invented plastics or refrigeration either; maybe the airplane.

x said...

R. Buckminster Fuller

TurboNerd said...

Just off the top of my head, important living scientists/engineers/inventors:

- Dean Kamen

- Steven Wozniak

- Linus Torvalds

- Jack Kilby (though he did die earlier this year)

- Les Paul

- Ray Kurzweil,

That's just a few of a very big list.

We have more great inventors now than ever before. The problem is that most people don't care about them. The reason we remember the ones from the so called "age of invention" is because they were treated then like movie & pop stars are today. They were _important_ to people's lives because they were radically changing the way people lived and worked. We've gotten so used to radical change, we simply don't value their individual contributions.

Besides, the 15 minute fame people make for much better news copy than something "hard" like explaining a new invention or scientific discovery.

Alex said...

Well, Hwang Woo Suk from Seoul National University, the one in the middle of the stem cell study fraud ... he's a "superstar" scientist in South Korea. Does that count?

Anonymous said...

Hm. Stephen Hawking would have to be the obvious choice. Would you accept Bill Gates as an engineer?

Anonymous said...

Dean Kamen.

Granted, the reason he's famous is largely because of the hype surrounding the Segway, rather than for his arguably more important medical inventions.

Oh, and Stephen Hawking is Not Dead.

Ahruman said...

Stephen Hawking.
Steve Wosniak.

The telephone is a somewhat debatable example, too. It had three fathers at the same time, but only one had buisiness acumen.

Martin said...

Steve Wozniak, the Apple guy.

Anonymous said...


Paul Lagasse said...

How about Henry Petroski, author of several popular books on engineering failure (To Engineer is Human, Design Paradigms, et al.) and currently the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Engineering at Duke?

cenoxo said...

Let's bring it a little closer to home with Ron Popeil, inventor (and salesman) of the Veg-O-Matic, Popeil Pocket Fisherman, Drain Buster, Smokeless Ashtray, and others.

In August 2005, he sold his company, Ronco, to Fi-Tek VII, a Denver holding company, for $55 million. He said he plans to continue serving as the spokesman and inventor, but wanted to spend more time with his family.

Sheer brilliance isn't always enough. Great minds like Tesla or Fuller—whom I both admire—were so visionary that many of their ideas never made it back down to Earth.

cenoxo said...


At least in MSIE6, I'm only seeing one of the four Edison images (upper right) on this Famous Engineers post. The other three images are broken links.

Also, the bracketed tag "!--[if !supportEmptyParas]--" appears between paragraphs.

Great site, otherwise. Thanks!

Dave Culp said...

Nice, thought-provoking stuff. I understand and agree with your overview; "Who are the white hats today?", but I disagree that it was any simpler in "the good old days." Cultural memory is fickle and subject to (sometimes gross) simplification. The Wright brothers did not invent the airplane, nor Bell the telephone. Watt did not invent the steam engine, and Edison most assuredly did not invent the light bulb. Each of these men built or promulgated a popular or useful improvement to inventions already existing, and then had the luck (or tenacity) to become famous for it. Sometimes this was due to straight and simple barnstorming, a la Edison, and sometimes it was through malice aforethought (remember Philo Farnsworthy!) You can be sure that, 50 years form now, all the important inventions of today will be pidgeon-holed into neat categories, with single-named "inventors" attached. History demands it!

Billll said...

Burt Rutan
Kelly Johnson (dead, but not forgotten)
Carrol Shelby
John Delorian