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.