Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Mad Inventor

I wonder. Is the mad inventor a product of technological civilization, particularly our own? That seems to be the case. It is in secular, outwardly-oriented, and expansive times that invention, money, and fame come to be closely linked. But then, if collective human experience has a cyclic character, thus alternating between inwardly- and outwardly-oriented times, between ages of religion and ages of materialism, this would mean that the mad inventor appears, suffers or flourishes for a time…and then disappears again for a spell.

Looking into this, I latched on to patents as perhaps a good indicator. Some hard right to an invention would seem to be required really to motivate the mad inventor. Looking at the history of patents, I learned from Wikipedia that the first instance of a patent-right we know anything about arose in Italy in 500 BC, in the city of Sybaris. Technically speaking, to be sure, Sybaris was part of the Greek domain. Wikipedia learned this from Charles Anthon who, in splendid old-fashioned titling, still clinging to life 1841, wrote…

A Classical Dictionary: Containing An Account Of The Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, And Intended To Elucidate All The Important Points Connected With The Geography, History, Biography, Mythology, And Fine Arts Of The Greeks And Romans Together With An Account Of Coins, Weights, And Measures, With Tabular Values Of The Same

Wunderbar! Most historians use 500 BC to mark the beginning of the Classical period in Greek history. It follows the Archaic; and the Archaic follows The Dark Age. These are echoes of our own way of labeling ages as well. In our way of seeing things, the Classical begins with the Renaissance. Not surprisingly, therefore, the next mention of a patent in Wikipedia’s article is one for a barge with a hoisting mechanism issued in 1421 AD.

But patents remained spotty, you might say, until the Fossil Age dawned and suddenly real money could be made. To illustrate the sudden rise of Mount Patent in America, here is a splendid graphic, also from Wikipedia here.

As a government official, I saw my share of mad inventors struggling against all hope to interest somebody, anybody, in their world-beating invention. Many were literally white-hot and dangerously radiant. Here and there one or the other of them managed to make me spend full days, and sometimes two days—and I mean including dinner and into the night—listening to their strange tales and agonies. I was not about to be curt and dismissive; and it is the nature of such people, so searing is their faith, that to this day I’ve no idea whether I was suffering fools gladly or trying to be kind to the inspired but unlucky.


  1. I'll try a comment...

    Interesting topic. I think Ancient Greece may have had "mad" philosophers - Empedocles comes to mind, who jumped into a volcano, so the story goes.
    Pythagoras raised some eyebrows, and Plato was a few members short of an Academy at times. I have no idea what Heron of Alexandria was like, but anyone who spent so much time deceiving devout worshipers must have been a bit irregular.
    Then there was the guy who invented the coin-operated wine dispensers in Pompeii... he came to a bad end, too, living in the suburbs of Herculaneum.

  2. Delighted to see that the comment "took"!

  3. Wonderful thoughts. And, a theme this week is emerging, one about randomness, seems to me.