Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment

By Michael Brian Schiffer; Kacy L. Hollenback et al. | Go to book overview

11
Visionary Inventors

Benjamin Franklin was in many ways the Thomas Edison of the eighteenth century. Like Edison, Franklin was a prolific inventor who created products—the lightning conductor, a wood stove, and bifocals—that he hoped might improve people's lives. Like Edison, Franklin lived to witness the widespread adoption of many of his creations. Like Edison, Franklin won acclaim for his inventions and became famous at home and across the Atlantic. As autodidacts from modest circumstances who achieved greatness, both men gave substance to the American dream. 1

Beyond these important similarities lies a world of difference in the activities of these tworemarka blemen. Frankline arnedaliving from hisprinting and publishing businesses; Edison's earnings came through inventing. Franklin, believing that inventions should be given freely for the common good, never applied for a patent; Edison accrued more than one thousand— still the American record. 2 Franklin invented relatively simple products; Edison invented complex products as well as entire technological systems. These differences have little to do with ability or personality and everything to do with dramatic changes in society that transpired in the nineteenth century.

One far-reaching change was the transformation of patents into property—indeed, into commodities. During the eighteenth century, the few Americans who bothered to obtain patents received little more than a paper token of their ingenuity. The following century witnessed the emergence of what the historian Carolyn Cooper calls a “patent management system” involving, among others, patent examiners, agents, and attorneys. 3 By participating in this system, inventors could treat their patents as property subject to rental, lease, or sale. Patent management systems in America and in Europe coevolved with the explosive growth of modern corporations rooted

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