The Major Controversies Surrounding Historical Discoveries and Inventions


Innovation breeds controversy. Whenever something new is discovered or invented, there is the matter concerning who gets credit for it or, more importantly, who gets to profit from it. After all, when it comes to many such novelties, having your name attached to it can secure your spot in the history books or provide you with a fortune that last many lifetimes. Or, in some cases, both.

It is no surprise, therefore, that some of these developments brought with them plenty of dissension and disputes.

8. The Wright Brothers Patent War

Orville and Wilbur Wright might be two of the most iconic names in the history of aviation, but their careers were fraught with controversy. Most people credit them with the first powered, controlled, and sustained heavier-than-air flight back in 1903, but it is not a settled matter. Others give the nod to Gustave Whitehead who may have done it first in 1901. Or, perhaps, to Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in his 14-bis (Quatorze-bis)

In their time, what the Wright brothers really cared about was maintaining ownership of the flight control they created. They patented the three-axis control system with pitch, roll, and yaw, and then fiercely defended it in the courtroom against anyone who wanted to use it without paying them royalties. As the three-axis system is now considered a basic concept of flight dynamics, they pretty much wanted everyone to pay them.

This started a patent war that lasted for a decade. Mainly affected by this issue were other American aviators like Glenn Curtiss. The Wright patent was recognized in several European countries, as well, but growing international tensions meant that upholding the patent wasn’t really a priority for them.

Back in the United States, the Wright brothers not only limited the number of American aircrafts being built, but also actively stifled innovation. They feared that an improved system might differ enough from their patent that they would lose control over it so they insisted that everyone used the same basic flight control.

When World War I broke out, America didn’t produce any aircraft of its own design. Instead, they chose European planes like the British DH-4 because they were more advanced.

The U.S. Government ended the patent war in 1917 by strongly recommending that aviation companies form a patent pool called the Manufacturer’s Aircraft Association to cross-license their technology.

7. The Invention of Calculus

Calculus: today it is the bane of high school students everywhere. Back in the early 18th century, it was the source of an ardent dispute between two of history’s greatest mathematicians.

The question was simple – who invented calculus? The answer, however, was a matter of contention between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Nowadays, scholars tend to agree that the two mathematicians developed their ideas independently and should both receive credit. Neither one of them would have agreed with this assertion, however. Leibniz believed he alone deserved the accolade, not just for himself, but for the “good of mathematics.” Newton, on the other hand, accused Leibniz of being a plagiarist and a second inventor whose work was based on his.

The crux of the issue comes from the fact that both scientists started work on calculus years, even decades before publishing it. Newton was rather notorious for his hesitant nature when it came to this. He claimed to have first worked on calculus in 1666, when he was only 23-years-old, but his paper didn’t go into print until 1704.

Leibniz also took his sweet time, although not as long as Newton. He published “Nova Methodus pro Maximis et Minimis” in 1684, a decade after he began writing it. His detractors argued that Leibniz obtained Newton’s unpublished papers and derived his work from that. Of course, there is no direct evidence to support or dismiss this idea.

6. The Microphone Patent War

The telephone might be the most contentious invention in history. While credit for its creation generally goes to Alexander Graham Bell, there are multiple other inventors with legitimate claims to this innovation.

The legal battle for recognition resulted in almost 600 lawsuits and the matter divides people even today. It is still so pervasive that we, instead, will focus on a related, lesser-known patent war over who invented the microphones that went into those early telephones.

In 1877, Emile Berliner invented a microphone which used a layer of carbon between two contacts to improve sound quality. It still didn’t sound good by our standards, but it was certainly better than before. A year later, the Bell Telephone Company bought his patent for over a million dollars in modern currency and the carbon disk microphone proved vital in establishing the telephone as an invention of the future.

In came Thomas Edison who filed a patent in 1877 for a similar device that also used carbon. He sued Berliner and, fifteen years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Edison invented the carbon microphone.

Until his death, Berliner claimed that Edison had stolen his idea and, later, his recognition. However, he managed to trump Edison in another department – the phonograph. Berliner created his own, more popular sound-playing device called a Gramophone. Crucially, he also invented an alternative to the wax cylinders frequently used at the time. He came up with something still popular today with purists, DJs, and hipsters – the disc record.

5. The Race to the North Pole

In 1909, the New York Times shocked its readers with the revelation that explorer Robert Peary discovered the North Pole. Curiously, a week earlier, the New York Herald printed a similar story, except that it credited Frederick Cook. For centuries, the North Pole remained one of the last unexplored bastions of the wild that seemed forever out of reach even for the bravest adventurers. Now, all of a sudden, we had two men claiming they both went there, but who did it first?

Cook’s expedition took place almost a year before that of Peary. He delayed his announcement because he had to recuperate afterwards. Therefore, if both of them reached the North Pole, then Cook, undoubtedly, did so first. Consequently, Peary and his backers went on a smear campaign against him.

Particularly noteworthy was an affidavit by one Edward Barrill, a blacksmith who, allegedly, accompanied Cook on a different trip to climb Mount McKinley in 1906. According to his statement, Cook lied and never made it to the top. If he lied about that, then, obviously, he would also lie about reaching the North Pole. However, the New York Herald reported that Barrill had been paid off by the Peary Arctic Club to discredit Cook.

Cook sent all his proof to the University of Copenhagen who gave a verdict for his claim of “not proven.” Although this was different from “disproven,” the two became the same in the eyes of the public.

For decades, Robert Peary was hailed as the first to reach the North Pole, but his evidence came into question in recent years, as well. Nowadays, many explorers and scholars believe that neither of them reached the pole, although each one still has their supporters.

4. The Discovery of Haumea

In 2008, the astronomical world officially recognized Haumea, the first dwarf planet to be discovered since Pluto in 1930. In actuality, they knew about it since 2005, but it took four years to settle the matter of who actually discovered the space rock.

There was a dispute between the astronomy team at Caltech led by Michael Brown and the Spanish team from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia led by José Luis Ortiz Moreno. It appeared that the Americans first noticed Haumea while their Spanish counterparts were the first to announce it so there was a matter of deciding not only who got the credit, but who got to name the dwarf planet.

Although Brown initially admitted defeat (and consoled himself with the undisputed discovery of Eris, another dwarf planet), he later accused Ortiz of accessing Caltech data and using their observation logs to find Haumea without any acknowledgment. He also petitioned the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to strip the Spanish team of their discovery credit.

After years of controversy, the IAU decided to name the dwarf planet after the Hawaiian goddess Haumea. This was a name proposed by Caltech which would suggest that, implicitly, the IAU sided with the American team. However, the committee stayed as neutral as possible on the matter. In the official registry, the discovery location is listed as the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain while the field for “Discoverer” is left blank. They also argued that the Spanish suggestion, Ataecina, was rejected because it did not fit IAU naming conventions.

3. The Identification of Oxygen

The credit for discovering oxygen typically goes to English chemist Joseph Priestley, but there are, at least, two other people with strong claims to this achievement: Antoine Lavoisier and Carl Wilhelm Scheele.

Throughout history, there have been other scientists before these three who conducted experiments that produced oxygen, although they didn’t realize it. Priestley and the others were helped by the fact that they did their work at a time when belief in the phlogiston theory was dying out. Before that, it was widely accepted in scientific circles that there was a fire element called phlogiston responsible for combustion.

Priestley himself was a believer in this theory. In 1774, he concluded that air was not actually an elementary substance, but rather a mixture of multiple gases, including what he called “dephlogisticated air.” It was the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier who gave it the name “oxygen.”

Besides naming the new gas, Lavoisier was also instrumental in discrediting the theory of phlogiston. As far as him discovering oxygen independently of Priestley, however, his claim was criticized due to lack of evidence, but also because Priestley asserted that he visited the French scientist prior to the discovery and told him of his experiments.

A stronger claim belongs to German-Swedish scientist Carl Scheele. The chemist discovered oxygen (or “fire air,” as he called it), around 1771-1772. He wrote a letter detailing his exploits and sent it to Lavoisier, but he denied ever receiving it and Scheele’s findings weren’t published until 1777. A copy of the letter was subsequently found after his death, bolstering Scheele’s claim.

2. The Discovery of Neptune

In 1846, our solar system grew by one planet after the discovery of Neptune. This was a landmark moment, not only due to the obvious reason of finding a new planet, but also because Neptune became the first such object identified through mathematics instead of direct observation.

In a stunning validation of celestial mechanics, French scientist Urbain Le Verrier calculated that there must be another planet to account for the discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus. This led to the detection of Neptune, but a British astronomer called John Couch Adams soon came forward with the same calculation. This led to debates over who truly deserved the credit for his momentous discovery.

In the mid 19th century, Uranus had not been around for long, having only been discovered by William Hershel in 1781. However, it wasted no time in making astronomers scratch their heads due to its strange orbit. Sometimes it moved faster than anticipated, sometimes slower, seemingly violating the laws of planetary motion.

The gravitational force from another planet could offer an explanation for these bizarre movements. In August, 1846, Le Verrier wrote a paper with Neptune’s predicted location and sent it to astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory. The document arrived on September 23. In less than a day, Galle had found Neptune, within one degree of Le Verrier’s prediction.

This was incredibly impressive, but soon afterwards Adams presented a similar claim. Allegedly, he calculated the position of Neptune as early as 1845, but went ignored by his superiors as he was just a student. The scientific community agreed that both men deserved equal credit.

This view has been challenged in modern times, especially after never-before-seen documents from the British team had been unearthed. They showed that Adams made five or six wrong predictions before getting it right and that his locations were far vaguer than those of Le Verrier. The Brits went on a six-week wild goose chase while Galle found Neptune using Le Verrier’s calculations in only half an hour.

1. The War of the Currents

Without a doubt, one of mankind’s defining accomplishments was the ability to harness electricity. It has an almost-ubiquitous presence in our lives, yet we rarely acknowledge it until we find ourselves without it.

In your home, like in most others, electric power is delivered through alternating current (AC). It has become the dominant transmission system, but that was not the case during the 1880s. Its main rival, direct current (DC), was the standard championed by Thomas Edison. However, he became embroiled in a fierce competition which became known as the “War of the Currents.”

The war is often billed as Edison vs. Tesla – two genius inventors and rivals. However, this view eliminates the role of George Westinghouse, the true thorn in Edison’s side, and a man who played an integral part in bringing AC into our homes.

Thomas Edison was a good businessman. He found financiers, started his own electric company and promoted the spread of direct current. Nikola Tesla, while brilliant, was never too business-savvy. It wasn’t until engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse decided to get into the electric game that the “War of the Currents” truly started. He bought Tesla’s patents on alternating current and founded the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1886.

Edison’s main strategy was to play the “danger” card. The biggest advantage of alternating current, which was high voltage, also made it far more hazardous. Higher voltages allowed AC to be transmitted over longer distances, but the lines were mounted on poles and caused a number of electrical fatalities. Edison was aided in his quest by an electrical engineer named Harold Brown who, during the late 1880s, launched a crusade against alternating current for being unsafe.

A notable moment occurred in 1890 during the execution of William Kemmler who became the first person to die in the electric chair. Edison ensured that alternating current provided by a Westinghouse generator was used to enhance its reputation as the “killer current.” The execution didn’t go smoothly and Kemmler’s body became a fiery, charred mess which, if anything, worked even more in Edison’s favor.

Despite Edison’s efforts, AC proved increasingly popular. It won several high-profile contracts such as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the power station at Niagara Falls which, basically, ensured its dominance. Edison’s electric company, under pressure from its financiers, stopped supporting direct current.

A last, memorable moment in the “War of the Currents” occurred in 1903. A female Asian elephant named Topsy was executed by electrocution at Luna Park in Coney Island. A crew from Edison Studios filmed the event which, in recent years, has been touted online as another Edison stunt to show that AC was so dangerous it could kill an elephant. In reality, though, this had nothing to do with it and took place a decade after the “war” had ended and Edison lost. The crew was just there to make a kinetoscope movie.

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