Fading into Oblivion: Lessons from a Ruthless World

A recent article, which documents the story of the true inventor of cereal, has been doing the rounds lately on social media; it debunks the better known tussle between Dr. James Caleb Jackson and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and instead credits Lucretia Jackson, Dr. Jackson’s wife as the true inventor. Incorrect attribution of an inventor to their invention? Hmm… where have we heard that one before, perhaps the Alexander Graham Bell and Antonio Meucci controversy over the inventor of the telephone; Shiva Ayyadurai’s struggle to be recognised as the inventor of email; the Marconi-Bose controversy on the true inventor of radio and perhaps the most famous of them all the Tesla-Edison wars.  And these are only the more popular, widely spoken about stories. Imagine the countless other instances which have faded into oblivion….


 These are not open and shut cases of intellectual theft. There is a common thread that runs through all of them. They are a reflection of the ills of society. These are stories rooted in injustice representing racism, hypocrisy, and chauvinism. These are stories in which the rich won against the weak, and the shrewd triumphed over those who pursued knowledge rather than fame.

 War Stories

Let’s look first at the latest example of the uncredited woman who created cereal.  It reads like a case of a husband not valuing the contributions of the home and hearth. As the story linked above indicates, Lucretia Jackson was the wife of Dr. James Caleb Jackson who ran a popular sanitarium named ‘Our Home’ in the 19th century in New York where he tried to cure people without the aid of modern medicine.  The popular notion is that John Harvey Kellogg who is credited as the inventor of modern day cereal actually got his idea from Jackson. But it was in fact neither of these two men but Jackson’s wife who experimented and first created cereal.  Her achievements went largely uncredited most probably because no one, especially her husband, ever fully understood the value and potential of her creation. Jackson never considered his wife as his intellectual equal. Other innovations from ‘Our Home’ were recognised with great vigour but not cereal, until it was too late.

 Then there is the story of the telephone, the invention of which is mired in deceit, fraud and impoverishment. An Italian immigrant in the US, Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci is known to have created the ‘electrophone’ a version of the telephone. He filed a patent caveat on his invention in 1871 but was unable to afford the renewal fee. A few years later he approached the Western Union Telegraph Company (“Western Union”) with his research. They mysteriously lost his papers. Two years later Alexander Graham Bell who worked with Western Union filed a patent for the telephone. Meucci later filed a case against Bell and Western Union, which he lost thanks to Bell’s financial backers and Meucci’s limited means. It was only as late as 2002, that the US Congress formally recognised Meucci as the inventor of the telephone.

 Shiva Ayyadurai, was just 14 (fourteen) when he created email.  He was, as he refers to himself, the ‘low caste’, ‘dark skinned’ Indian who invented email. He wrote a program with an interface similar to the one we use in modern day email which had features like ‘inbox’,’ outbox’ etc. He also received a copyright on his program.  He has been fighting for most part of his life to be recognised as the inventor of email over his arch nemesis Ray Tomlinson.

 And finally there is the rivalry between Edison and Tesla.  Thomas Edison is widely credited with having created the light bulb but it was in fact Tesla whose visionary and disruptive technologies laid the groundwork for most of Edison’s inventions. Tesla was dismissed as an impractical visionary whose ideas, though powerful, had little utility. One of his long-term visions was to provide free electricity to the world, but his financial backers, including bankers JP Morgan, deserted him when they learned that they would not be able to monetise  the invention. In the end Tesla died a penniless man.

 Society fails its innovators

 I’m well aware that Rome wasn’t built in a day. All the inventions mentioned above took years and each inventor built on the work of his predecessors and peers. It would be foolish to completely discount the contributions of Edison, Tomlinson, Jackson or Bell to the inventions mentioned above.

 In fact, Ray Tomlinson is known to have improved over Ayyadurai’s system by  creating a system akin to text messaging to enable persons to send messages to each other over different servers. Edison and Bell helped in putting together the final pieces of the puzzle and converted Tesla and Meucci’s ideas into practically useful inventions. Who knows whether Lucretia Jackson would have hit upon the idea to create cereal if it was not for the inventive and innovative spirit already prevalent in Jackson’s ‘Our Home’?

 My problem is really not so much with those who got recognition but that their fame came at a price. The price was that some of the vital contributors to the inventions were conveniently and systematically erased into oblivion. Laws are a reflection of the society we live in but they certainly don’t provide all the answers. Ayyadurai received a copyright; Tesla received a few hundred patents and even Meucci received a temporary patent when he applied for it but despite these legal validations, the inventors faded into obscurity. The reason was not failure of the law but failure of society to recognise that talent may thrive in the most unlikely of places.

In a dog eat dog world where all that matters is survival of the fittest, the stories above are stories of unequals and a race among unequals is not a race, it is an ambush. The systematic propaganda to erase the efforts of these important contributors reeks of deceit.

 Though the stories are old, the social malaises they speak of are as relevant today. Perhaps we will never be able to wish them away, doomed forever to live in accordance with Darwin’s theory.  There is one question I would like you to ponder on. Will we be able to save the next Lucretia, Tesla, Meucci, Ayyadurai etc.  from their impending fate?

 We have on the blog numerous times brought to your attention the work of smaller informal innovators and advocated the need for providing them greater access to the patent system and, more importantly, aiding commercialization of their inventions. See our posts here and here. This could be one way of ensuring that inventors have access to formal systems which recognise their efforts and innovations. But until the social fabric changes we will lose some great minds to obscurity and the world will be worse for it.

Image from here


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2 thoughts on “Fading into Oblivion: Lessons from a Ruthless World”

  1. Thanks Shan,
    I am reminded of Margaret Keane, who had to fight for her right to be credited as the rightful creator and owner of her paintings. Her husband was claiming them as his creation and rights and minting money out of it. The biopic “Big Eyes” is based on this true life story.

  2. Thanks for your comment Anand. Yes I was reminded of Big Eyes too while reading about Lucretia Jackson’s story but Margaret Keane’s story was a very deliberate case of intellectual theft by her husband. I think it was more subtle and based on ignorance in Jackson’s case which actually makes it all the more worrying. And on the subject of movies, I hope you’ve watched the Prestige too which alludes to the Tesla-Edison rivalry.

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