Simultaneous Invention

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. What if he had never been born, Would we still have light bulbs? And would they still have been invented in 1879? It turns out that this is not just a philosophical question and the answer is yes, the light bulb would have been invented at roughly the same time. We know this because at least 23 other people built prototype light bulbs before Edison1, including two groups who filed patents and fought legal battles with him over the rights (Sawyer and Mann in the U.S. and Swan in England)2.

This is not a strange coincidence that happened with electric lighting, it is the norm in both technological invention and scientific and mathematical discovery. Newton and Leibniz independently invented calculus, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both filed a patent for the telephone on the same day — within three hours of each other — and sunspots were simultaneously discovered by four scientists living in four different countries. The list of simultaneous independent inventions includes the airplane (2 people), the steamboat (5 people), photography (2 people), the telegraph (5 people), and the telescope (9 people). In science and math it includes decimal fractions (2 people), the theory of natural selection (2 people), the discovery of oxygen (2 people), molecular theory (2 people), and the conservation of energy (4 people)3

A study by Ogburn and Thomas4 in 1922 produced a list of 148 major inventions and discoveries that were made independently by two or more groups at the same time. A similar study by Merton5 in 1960 led him to conclude that “the pattern of independent multiple discoveries in science is in principle the dominant pattern, rather than a subsidiary one”. Lest you think that only the landmark discoveries covered in these surveys are subject to multiple invention, recent work by Lemley6 suggests that 90-98% of patent lawsuits are filed against independent inventors and not copiers. Even the idea that multiple simultaneous invention is the norm was advanced by multiple independent groups at the same time7.


Inventions being discovered simultaneously is not just coincidence, it's a regular phenomenon.

Folksonomies: invention synchronicity

/hobbies and interests/inventors and patents (0.676991)
/home and garden/home furnishings/lamps and lighting (0.372944)
/business and industrial/energy/electricity (0.229102)

Simultaneous Invention Inventions (0.976005 (neutral:0.000000)), light bulb (0.812699 (negative:-0.209326)), multiple simultaneous invention (0.810600 (neutral:0.000000)), simultaneous independent inventions (0.805752 (neutral:0.000000)), light bulbs (0.804268 (neutral:0.000000)), prototype light bulbs (0.771146 (neutral:0.000000)), independent multiple discoveries (0.728773 (neutral:0.000000)), Alexander Graham Bell (0.728639 (neutral:0.000000)), multiple independent groups (0.701751 (neutral:0.000000)), people (0.649985 (neutral:0.000000)), technological invention (0.607216 (positive:0.519571)), multiple invention (0.589913 (negative:-0.492422)), strange coincidence (0.584478 (neutral:0.000000)), Thomas Edison (0.578399 (neutral:0.000000)), regular phenomenon (0.577177 (neutral:0.000000)), major inventions (0.559952 (neutral:0.000000)), landmark discoveries (0.559514 (negative:-0.492422)), decimal fractions (0.547350 (neutral:0.000000)), Elisha Gray (0.545137 (neutral:0.000000)), legal battles (0.544673 (negative:-0.312179)), electric lighting (0.542432 (neutral:0.000000)), philosophical question (0.540356 (neutral:0.000000)), different countries (0.536595 (neutral:0.000000)), mathematical discovery (0.535547 (positive:0.519571)), natural selection (0.528939 (positive:0.389236)), independent inventors (0.528087 (negative:-0.382663)), recent work (0.527582 (negative:-0.382663)), patent lawsuits (0.526017 (negative:-0.382663)), dominant pattern (0.524483 (neutral:0.000000)), molecular theory (0.522342 (neutral:0.000000))

Thomas Edison:Person (0.875800 (neutral:0.000000)), Alexander Graham Bell:Person (0.582310 (neutral:0.000000)), Elisha Gray:Person (0.548962 (neutral:0.000000)), Lemley6:Person (0.522538 (negative:-0.382663)), Sawyer:Person (0.506409 (negative:-0.294303)), Newton:Person (0.506262 (neutral:0.000000)), U.S.:Country (0.499345 (negative:-0.294303)), Thomas4:City (0.499051 (neutral:0.000000)), Mann:Person (0.462573 (negative:-0.294303)), England:City (0.449023 (negative:-0.294303)), three hours:Quantity (0.449023 (neutral:0.000000)), 98%:Quantity (0.449023 (neutral:0.000000))

Invention (0.950712): dbpedia | freebase
Incandescent light bulb (0.793425): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Patent (0.673736): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Thomas Edison (0.665456): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Telephone (0.658201): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Alexander Graham Bell (0.637473): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Discovery (0.614534): dbpedia | freebase
Innovation (0.510067): dbpedia | freebase

 Are Inventions Invevitable? Simultaneous Invention and the Incremental Nature of Discovery
Electronic/World Wide Web>Blog:  Maier, Matt (Nov 25, 2012), Are Inventions Invevitable? Simultaneous Invention and the Incremental Nature of Discovery, Retrieved on 2014-03-16
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: technology invention