The Power of Ideas
The Power of Ideas
When Edison introduced his new-fangled electric-lighting system, he found a receptive audience. The public, the press, and even his competitors— with the possible exception of the gaslight industry—recognized that here was a technology of the future. Alexander Graham Bell, on the other hand, had a tougher time. In 1876, just three years before Edison would create a practical light bulb, Bell’s invention of the telephone fell flat. “A toy,” his detractors huffed. What good was it? The telegraph already handled communications quite nicely, thank you, and sensible inventors should be trying to lower the cost and improve the quality of telegraphy. Indeed, that’s just what one of Bell’s rivals, Elisha Gray, did—to his everlasting regret. Gray had come up with a nearly identical telephone some months before Bell, but he had not patented it. Instead, he had turned his attention back to the telegraph, searching for a way to carry multiple signals over one line. When Gray eventually did make it to the patent office with his telephone application, he was two hours behind Bell. Those two hours would cost him a place in the history books and one of the most lucrative patents of all time. Some months later, Bell offered his patent to the telegraph giant Western Union for a pittance—$100,000—but company officials turned him down. The telephone, they thought, had no future. It wasn’t until the next year, when Bell had gotten financing to develop his creation on his own, that Western Union began to have second thoughts. Then the company approached Thomas Edison to come up with a similar machine that worked on a different principle so that it could sidestep the Bell patent and create its own telephone. Eventually, the competitors combined their patents to create the first truly adequate telephones, and the phone industry took off. By 1880 there were 48,000 phones in use, and a decade later nearly five times that. More recently, when high-temperature superconductors were first created in 1986, the experts seemed to be competing among themselves to forecast the brightest future for the superconductor industry.
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