Today’s Google doodle honors Alessandro Volta (whose name will be remembered forever in connection with the volt, a unit of power) on his 270th birthday. Volta is credited with the invention of the first electrical battery in 1799. The doodle has been criticized as misleading because it portrays electric lights more commonly associated with Thomas Edison than with Volta.
Science vs. technology
In today’s Beem blog, I wish to compare and contrast science versus technology in the contexts of the various works of James Watt, Alessandro Volta, and Thomas Edison. I credit Volta as a great scientist; I credit Watt and Edison as great technologists who patented and commercialized their inventions.
In my last blog, I mentioned James Watt and his steam engine patents from the late 1700s. Watt’s name, like Volta’s, is immortalized as a unit of power. Both were active in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, which coincided with the origin of the United States of America and the remarkable new patent system embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
Edison’s 1,000 patents
Edison’s work came a century after the works of Watt and Volta. Edison famously patented more than 1,000 inventions, many of which he commercialized in the several companies that bore his name. Edison’s light bulb was patented as U.S. Patent 223,896 in 1880.
The work of Edison and his contemporaries was first demonstrated on a large scale at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in a massive display of 250,000 light bulbs. The Columbian Exposition drew several hundred thousand Americans, most of whom had never seen electric lights. I am reminded of this historical innovation every day when I walk into my offices in the Monadnock Building, the first building in Chicago to be built with electric lighting, then the tallest office building in the world, completed just prior to the Exposition.
Edison’s work on batteries
More than a century after Volta’s invention of the electrical battery–more than a quarter century after Edison invented the first practical light bulb–Edison began his work on batteries. In 1901, he patented the first nickel-iron battery. Edison would continue his work through the next decade and obtain several additional patents on batteries and commercialize them through the Edison Storage Battery Company.
Many of Edison’s patented batteries incorporated bismuth, as I am reminded by his letter of December 26, 1907, the original being displayed in the front room of Beem Patent Law Firm. (I also own an original letter written and signed by James Watt.)
Volta vs. Watt and Edison
As Isaac Newton famously observed in the 1670s, all science builds on the work of others. Volta’s work built on that of Luigi Galvani. James Watt did not invent the steam engine; he improved on the work of Newcomen by adding a condenser. Edison did not invent the light bulb; he make it practical by selecting a carbon fiber filament and enclosing it in a vacuum.
Alessandro Volta was a great scientist. He published and demonstrated his discoveries to wide acclaim in the Royal Society of London and the French court of Napoleon. He did not patent his discoveries, perhaps because Italy did not have a functioning patent system in his day. If you want to engage in pure science—if you are uninterested in profit—publication will suffice.
James Watt, on the other hand, patented his improved steam engine technology beginning in about 1769 in England, which had a functioning patent system. Watt and his business partner Boulton would test and prove the strength of the British patent system and would make substantial fortunes in commercializing their patented steam engines.
Thomas Edison would make the biggest impact of all with his inventions, his patents, and the companies he founded to commercialize his patented technologies.
To make money, patent and commercialize your technologies
James Watt and Thomas Edison engaged in technology, patents, and commercialization. If you want to benefit by commercializing your inventions, you will want to patent your new, improved, proprietary technologies.