Sunday, August 30, 2015

Murray Rothbard's Ode to Lone Scientists and Inventors

In the recently released pamphlet written by Murray Rothbard in 1959, Science, Technology and Government, my favorite chapter is the one where Rothbard discusses lone scientists and lone inventors.

From the pamphlet:
The twentieth century has produced some great independent inventors, creators of many important new devises. One of them, the Englishman S.G. Brown (components for telegraphy, telephony, radio, and gyro-compass) declared: “if there were any control over me or my work every idea would stop.” Brown never accepted financial aid for experimental work, or for producing a new devise. How would such a man fare under the control of a government-directed research team, or one that was government-controlled? P.T. Farnsworth, great television pioneer, has always preferred to do his research on a small scale and with simple equipment. F.W. Lanchester, great British inventor in aerodynamics and engineering once wrote:
 “the salient feature of my career . . . (is that) . . . my work has been almost wholly individual. My scientific and technical work has been almost wholly individual. My"scientific and technical work has never been backed by funds from external sources to any material extent.”
 Lee de Forest, eminent inventor of the radio vacuum tube, always found it difficult to work under any conditions short of complete autonomy. Sir Frank Whittle invented the jet engine with very slim resources
C.F. Kettering often positively preferred simple equipment. And R.M. Lodge recently warned:
  “The trend towards more and more complex apparatus should be carefully watched and controlled; otherwise the scientists themselves gradually become specialist machine-minders, and there is a tendency, for example, for analytical problem to be passed from the microanalytical laboratory to the intra-red laboratory and from there to the mass spectrographic laboratory, whereas all the time all that was needed was a microphone and a keen observer.”[16] 
The worthy individual inventor is far from helpless in the modern world. He may, in a free enterprise system, become a free-lance consultant to industry, may work on inventions on outside grants, may sell his ideas to corporations, may form or be backed by a research association (both profit and non-profit), or may obtain aid from special private organizations that invest risk capital in small speculative inventions (e.g., the American Research and Development Corporations). 
One very important reason for the success of the independent inventor, and his preservation from the dominance of large-scale government-controlled projects, stem from the very nature of invention: “The essential feature of innovation is that the path to it is not known beforehand. The less, therefore, an inventor is pre-committed in his speculation by training or tradition, the better the chance of his escaping from the grooves of accepted thought.”[17] There are many recorded instances of the inventor winning out despite the scoffing of the recognized experts in the field, perhaps even emboldened because he didn’t know enough to be discouraged. One authority maintains that Farnsworth benefited from his lack of contact with the outside scientific world. Once, a professor gave him four good reasons why his idea—later successful—could not possibility work. Before the discovery of the transistor, many scientists claimed that nothing more could be learned in that field. Eminent mathematicians once claimed to prove logically that short-wave radio was impossible. Government-controlled research would undoubtedly rely on existing authorities, and thus would snuff out the searchings of the truly original minds. Many of the great inventors of recent times could not have gotten a research job in the field for lack of expertise: the inventors of Kadachrome were musicians; Eastman, the great inventor in photography, was a bookkeeper at the time; the inventor of the ball-point pen was an artist and journalist; the automatic dialing system was invented by an undertaker; a veterinarian invented the pneumatic tire. Furthermore, there are many inventors who are part-time, or one-shot, inventors, who are clearly more useful on"their own than as part of a research team. 
As the eminent British zoologist John Baker points out, the life of an independent researcher involves the willingness to bear great risks:
The life is too strenuous for most people, and the timid scientist hankers after the safety of directed teamwork routine. The genuine research worker is altogether different kind of person.[18] 
 Darwin once wrote
I am like a gambler and love a wild experiment.
  The importance of self-directed work to great scientists is stressed by the Nobel prize-winning chemical discoverer of vitamins, Szent-Gyorgyi, who wrote: 
The real scientist . . . is ready to bear privation . . . rather than let anyone dictate to him which direction his work must take.[19] 
 Not only inventors, but many types of scientist benefit from the work of independent researchers in their fields. Einstein said that: “I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for team work,” and suggested that refugee scientists take jobs as lighthouse-keepers, so that they could enjoy needed isolation. The fundamental discoveries in valence theory, cytogenetics, embryology, and many other fields of twentieth-century biology, were made by individual scientists.[20] Scientific discoveries, furthermore, cannot be planned in advance. They grow out of apparently unrelated efforts of previous scientists, often in diverse fields. The radium and X-ray treatments for cancer owe most, not to planned research, on cancer cures, but to the discoverers of radium and X-rays, who were working for quite different goals. Baker shows that the discovery of a treatment for cancer of the prostate emerged out of centuries of unrelated research on: the prostate, phosphatase, and on hormones, none of which was aimed toward a cancer cure....
[C]ompanies were originally apathetic about the possibilities of wireless telegraphy; RCA resisted Armstrong’s FM ideas; the Edison Company, at the turn of the century, scoffed at the idea of a gas motor for transportation, insisting on the future of the electric motor for that purpose; the established aircraft-engine firms scoffed at the jet engine and at the retractable under-carriage; the British and American chemical firms were highly critical of penicillin, and almost refused to take part in its development; The Marconi Company expressed no interest in television when it was brought to their attention in 1925; the manufacturers of navigational equipment took no part in the invention of the gyro-compass. When the Ford Motor Company sought to introduce automation in their factories, they turned to the small specialized firms in the machine-tool industry, “The small uninhibited firms with no preconceived notions.” And even Henry Ford resisted the thermostat, or hydraulic brakes.


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