Whose Idea Was It?

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. (Sir Isaac Newton)*

Two articles in the New York Times this morning describe people who were able to take a good idea and make something out of it. They differ, however, in the way each person deals with the recognition for their work. Both articles are biographies of a sort: Nick Bilton describes the beginnings of Twitter while Margalit Fox presents the life of Ruth Benerito who helped make wrinkle-free cotton. What these stories have in common is that often the person credited by history with the creation was not the original creator just the one who took it farthest or managed to tell the best story.

Here’s how it played out for Dr. Benerito, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008, for what is considered a significant development of our time:

Many news articles over the years have described Dr. Benerito as the sole inventor of wrinkle-free cotton, a distinction she repeatedly disavowed. In the shorthand mythologizing to which the media can fall prey, “permanent press” seems to have been a convenient hook on which to hang her many achievements in less readily understood areas of chemistry. Her demurrals, in polite Southern tones, were widely ascribed to modesty.

In reality, wrinkle-free cotton first appeared in the 19th century, developed by a Shaker community in Maine. In the 20th, many scientists contributed incrementally to the problem of persuading cotton, constitutionally crease-prone, to lie down and behave.

Benerito worked with colleagues to develop the chemical processes and she never claimed full credit:

In a 2004 video interview produced by the U.S.D.A., Dr. Benerito reiterated that wrinkle-free cotton, like so much else in science, was the product of many hands over time.

“I don’t like it to be said that I invented wash-wear, because there were any number of people working on it, and there are various processes by which you give cotton those properties,” she said. “No one person discovered it or was responsible for it. But I contributed to new processes of doing it.”

The developers of Twitter are not quite so magnanimous. Bilton’s story is one of out-sized egos attempting to develop the most compelling creation myth with Jack Dorsey taking the most credit, suggesting he was thinking about Twitter as a young boy of eight years old:

In dozens of interviews, Dorsey completely erased Glass from any involvement in the genesis of the company. He changed his biography on Twitter to “inventor”; before long, he started to exclude Williams and Stone too. At an event, Dorsey complained to Barbara Walters that he had founded Twitter, a point she raised the next day on “The View” with Stone and Williams. Dorsey told The Los Angeles Times that “Twitter has been my life’s work in many senses.” He also failed to credit Glass for the company’s unusual name. “We wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket,” he told the paper.

Dorsey’s story evolved over the years. He would tell Vanity Fair that the idea for Twitter went back to 1984, when he was only 8 years old. A “60 Minutes” segment reported that Dorsey founded Twitter because he “was fascinated by trains and maps” and how cities function. Later, he would explain that he first presented the idea, fully realized, on a playground in South Park. All along, Dorsey began casting himself in the image of Steve Jobs, calling himself an “editor,” as Jobs referred to himself, and adopting a singular uniform: a white buttoned-up Dior shirt, bluejeans and a black blazer.

In many ways, it was Jobs who set the standard for knowing a good idea when he saw it and then having no problem taking credit for it:

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design, recalls how Jobs occasionally hit upon his ideas. “He will go through a process of looking at my ideas and say: ‘That’s no good. That’s not very good. I like that one,’ ” Ive told Isaacson. “And later I will be sitting in the audience” — during a product presentation — “and he will be talking about it as if it was his idea.”

Bilton believes this is part of the Silicon Valley process: everyone knows the ideas are collaborative, but venture capitalists and journalists love a good genius story. These creation myths undermine the importance of collaboration in the development process. Researchers who publish in academia, however, highlight collaboration, often including a long list of author on the paper with the first author being recognized as the primary developer. It may not have always been a happy collaboration but at least everyone gets some credit. As we work to encourage collaboration with our students, learning how to share credit is an essential lesson. We want them to be more like Dr. Benerito.

*In the spirit of this blog entry, I should point out that Newton was not the originator of this quote.

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