• Question: Great first lecture. Well done Danielle and RI. One small note regarding your next lecture. The telephone was not invented by Alexander Graham Bell. It is now well documented that he stole the patent from Elisha Gray, who could not afford the legal fees to defend his claim against the far more wealthy and better connected (through his double-dealing solicitor) Bell. In any case, Antonio Meucci's invention pre-dates both Gray and Gray's claim, and as I understand the USA government now recognises him as the inventor of the telephone. As the lectures as broadcast nearly live, I would be delighted if Ms George mentioned or eluded to this tomorrow. Does the RI not exist to, inter alia, dispel commonly believed untruths?

    Asked by Vimal on 30 Dec 2014.
    • Photo: Fiona Dickinson

      Fiona Dickinson answered on 30 Dec 2014:

      Unfortunately the lectures were recorded a couple of weeks ago.

      It is important to note as scientists and engineers that often (usually) more than one person is interested in the same thing at the same time. Unfortunately sometimes it doesn’t matter who was right, or who was first, just who became famous for it… there was a lot of interest in improving the telegraph in the late 19th century and many people were working on it. More than one person can have the same breakthrough completely independently, and this is often the case for some variation and confusion in science.

      Liebniz and Newton both ‘invented’ calculus at the same time leading to two different notations for calculus (dy/dx and f'(x)), in the UK most people just know of Newton and calculus, on the continent Liebniz gets a lot more recognition.

      Priestly, Lavoisier and Scheele are all credited with discovery of oxygen, Scheele found it first, but didn’t publish until after Priestly found it, but it was Lavoisier that found it was an element based on Priestly’s work.

      Watson & Crick are widely held as the two great mavericks who elucidated the structure of DNA effectively from nothing, but they wouldn’t have had the rosetta stone of ‘double helix’ without the work of Rosalind Franklin.

      Perhaps the most one sided ‘memory’ in science is the theory of natural selection which was published independently by two people Charles Darwin (who everyone has heard of) and Alfred Russel Wallace (who hardly anyone has heard of). Indeed, as far as my understanding goes, Wallace sent Darwin a large number of samples to help Darwin formulate ideas and even shared his ideas on natural selection before the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’. This was the great collection days of the Victorians though, where the Natural History museum was built as a temple to science and was being filled with catalogues of insects, birds, everything… somebody was bound to have come up with a theory eventually. Now both Darwin and Wallace are recognised together in the main hall of the Natural History Museum.

      There is a great quote from Newton ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, everything we know and find is based upon what has come before, and rarely are inventors solely responsible for what they invent.