The Myth of the Lone Genius

canstockphoto13763340Do you know who invented the light bulb? If you said Thomas Edison, then you are…kind of right. The real story is more complicated than that.

Other inventors had been making various forms of incandescent light bulbs for more than 80 years before Edison started working on it.

Edison filed a patent for an “electric lamp” in 1879, but the very first patent for a light bulb was issued in 1841 to Frederick de Moleyns of England. By the time Edison settled on a vacuum as the best way to keep the filament from burning too quickly, dozens of other men had already come to that conclusion.

And when he brought his light bulb to the market there were already other companies selling some version of the incandescent lamp.

So Edison didn’t really invent the light bulb; what he invented was a light bulb that was better than all the others and hence outperformed them in the marketplace.

It really isn’t proper to speak of a single person inventing the light bulb; the light bulb is the result of numerous people all working on it over a long period of time, making incremental improvements, learning not only from their own successes and failures but from those of the other inventors, until finally someone came up with one that performed well enough—and cheaply enough—that it became viable for municipal, commercial, and private use.

That Edison was the one who did that is clear, but even that is deceiving, for Edison didn’t work alone. He assembled a team of researchers at his lab in Menlo Park that became known as the “muckers.” These men—a machinist, a physicist and mathematician, a mechanic, and various chemists, draftsmen, and metalworkers—all made significant contributions to the development of a light bulb that wouldn’t burn out after just a few minutes. None of us can name a single one of them, yet it is safe to say that without them there wouldn’t have been an Edison light bulb.

So why does Edison get all the credit? Certainly it is because it was his laboratory, and he was the front man and therefore received all the publicity and attention.

More than anything, however, is that crediting a single individual plays into our American mythos of rugged individualism, the lone inventor genius tolling away in his lonely lab until—Eureka!—the “light bulb” goes off and in a moment of inspiration he invents the light bulb.

I’m not going to bash individualism—it is a good thing, something that Christianity helped to develop. It brought us respect for the uniqueness of each person, and it is the foundation of our privacy rights and our freedom of religion. It prevents the government or police from searching our homes at random without demonstrating probable cause. It keeps us from a drab, colorless world which insists everybody should look the same and act the same and believe the same and talk the same.

But individualism must be tempered by the recognition that we are social beings who exist and indeed thrive in relationship with one another. Our best ideas, our greatest advancements as a society, our greatest gains in culture and in government have primarily come about from people collaborating with each other, freely sharing concepts and learning from each other’s failures and successes, not from individuals huddling in their private spaces trying to go at it alone.

We’ve hurt each other with this myth of the rugged individual; we’ve hurt our children, who grow up with stories of great individual accomplishments instead of stories of great collaborative accomplishments.

They therefore think that in order to be a person of significance they must be great in some important area, and weak in none, or else fall back into the faded pack of muddled mediocrity. We need to tell better, more accurate stories of how humanity has progressed. When a team succeeds, each individual succeeds.

The Bible is interesting in this regard. While it tells the stories of individuals—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon—it also exposes their sins: Jacob cheating his twin brother not once but twice, leading to his exile; Joseph enabling Pharaoh to enslave the Egyptian people and, ultimately, the Hebrew people as well; King David breaking at least six of the Ten Commandments; and Solomon introducing idols into the Temple and, like Pharaoh, enslaving his own people.

There is really only one individual in the Bible who comes out completely clean, and that of course is Jesus. But even he didn’t try to do it alone. He gathered twelve men around him who, with some fits and starts, took Christianity to the ends of the earth.

And outside the cross and the resurrection, his most lasting accomplishment has been the church, which he never intended to be merely a collection of individuals, but a collaborative team working together, utilizing each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, all for the kingdom of God.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / 4774344sean

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