Ideas want to be free

If I ask you who invented the light bulb, what name comes to mind? Did you think of Humphry Davy? Was it Warren de la Rue or Joseph Wilson Swan? According to the website, in their article “History of the Light Bulb” there were at least 20 light bulb inventions prior to Thomas Alba Edison’s ‘invention’. The author of the article narrates that on October 14, 1878, Edison filed his first patent application for “Improvement in Electric Lights”. He was not the first to ‘invent’ the light bulb, but when his team of inventors discovered that a charred bamboo filament could last over 1,200 hours, he was the first to produce a commercially viable product.

Now, if I ask you who invented the telephone, would you say it was Elisha Gray or Alexander Bell? On February 14, 1876, both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, within three hours of each other, applied for a patent on the telephone. This led to multiple accusations of espionage and plagiarism. Gray’s attorney did not believe in the value of her client’s invention and advised her to drop her priority claim. But there is more to this story and it has to do with another inventor: 16 years earlier, Antonio Meucci filed a patent warning about the “teletrophone,” a device that sent words through wires. In the United States, a warning (caveat) is not a patent, it is an official notice that you are in the process of inventing something. But in 1874, the impoverished Meucci was unable to renew his warning.

These are just two examples of simultaneous inventions; but there are many others. According to Dr. AL Kroeber, one of the main factors influencing parallel occurrences is the cultural setting at the time of invention. For example, the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule would not have been possible without the development of X-ray crystallography and the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. Around the same time, Linus Pauling, one of the leading physicists and chemists of the day, proposed a three-stranded helical structure of DNA. His model turned out to be wrong but it’s hard not to think the discovery was inevitable.

As recounted by Kumar Srivastana of Wired magazine, Stuart Kauffman introduced the concept of “The Adjacent Possible”; this is when biological systems can be transformed into more complex systems by making small incremental changes. Steven Johnson uses this theory in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” to suggest that new ideas can only evolve in incremental steps from old ones. While each incremental idea may be small, the accumulation of several small ideas can add up to big discoveries. Many scientific breakthroughs are attributed to solitary genius, but when the conditions are right, it’s only a matter of time before the next technological step emerges.

Danny Hills, an American inventor and entrepreneur, compares inventions to a funnel. At first, there are thousands of people thinking about the same problem, but only a fraction, say one in 10, will go into detail about how to develop the idea further. Of that 10%, only 1 in 10 will build a working prototype. At the end of the funnel, usually only one or two will get the invention done and change the culture. The discovery of the structure of DNA was inevitable, the probability that Watson and Crick would discover it was one in many thousands.

Ideas want to be free because they are never fully developed when they originate. As described on, ideas start out abstract and become more specific over time. With each iteration, the idea can recruit new people. Often the person or team that makes the idea take root is not the first to think of the idea.

If we adhere to the funnel model to produce innovations, it is possible that most of the initial ideas were not very good. As Steven Spielberg said “All good ideas start out as bad ideas, that’s why it takes so long”. But, I think we shouldn’t worry about producing bad ideas, after all, as Linus Pauling said (the same Linus Pauling we were talking about earlier, the one who produced a wrong model of the DNA molecule but was later recognized for other contributions and ended up winning two Nobel Prizes) “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

RCD Kreimerman

References:,lamps%20prior %20to%20Edison’s%20version

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