Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Rings a bell

This article, although it’s missing the elements of high drama that made the latter a cinematic success, reminds me of the play-turned-movie The Water Engine, which featured a young, independent inventor, Charles Lang, who discovered the eponymous technology: an engine that was fueled by water in lieu of gasoline. Hoping to patent this device and make his fortune, Lang developed a prototype which he showed to a pair of corporate attorneys, who then offered him an absurdly low sum for the rights, intending not to market but to suppress his invention. Lang refused, with fatal consequences, and the water engine disappeared without a trace from the history of automotive technology.

Bell Telephone warehouse

Bell Telephone warehouse. Not shown: Bell Labs, graveyard of ideas.
[ Image Source ]

Although this page is flawed in many respects — the chronology and origins of the technologies it discusses are wrong, and the surmises as to the reasons for their belated appearance on the market are speculative and unproven — it still represents an intriguing history of a little-known aspect of American business history. Telling us of the enormous potential for innovation at the venerable Bell Labs and contrasting it with the uninspiring record of actual development and marketing that the labs really compiled, it raises murky but fascinating questions as to how technology reaches — or doesn’t reach — the public, and why conservative or paranoid thinking on the part of a few executives sometimes delays or even stops its development.

Originally published as a review of an io9.com article on corporate suppression of innovation; the link, however, now redirects to an unrelated story on gawker.com.

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