Isaac Newton and the Plague of 1665/66: Perhaps the Greatest Year in Science!

Today, we have the Covid-19 virus pandemic which threatens America – indeed the entire globe. Many of us are just now emerging from weeks of “sheltering-in-place” while avoiding the virus and its risks. Virtually overnight, we found ourselves confined to home with copious spare time on our hands, time to do all those “other things” which prove to be so elusive in normal times. Many are the voices which have expressed this as a surprise blessing! Indeed, what have you been able to accomplish using this unexpected windfall of extra time at home?

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

The all-time poster-child for shelter-in-place achievers happens also to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, Isaac Newton (yes, even greater than Albert Einstein who holds second position – in my humble estimation!).

As a young, unknown student, Newton had just completed his undergraduate work at Cambridge University in the year 1665 when the fearsome bubonic plague, the “black death” as it was called, swept through London and regions of England. Armed only with the most rudimentary medical knowledge, Londoners and folks in the countryside resorted to the only option available to them: sheltering-in-place to avoid exposure. Sounds familiar, does it not?

 In 1665, despite centuries of recorded plagues and millions of deaths, the origin and transmission of such deadly pandemics were to remain unknown for a surprisingly long time. It was not until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium responsible for such a horrible affliction. In 1898, Jean-Paul Simond revealed that the bacterium was spread through flea bites. Rodents were identified as the principal hosts and transmission vehicle for these fleas. Although largely treatable and well-controlled, today, “the black death” surprisingly still stalks the earth and its human populations!

The year 1666 is known as Newton’s “annus mirabilis,” the “miracle year” in science due to thought processes and experiments that took place in a tiny manor house in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, near Cambridge. It was there, in his mother’s rustic farm-house, the place where he was born, that young Newton secluded himself from the plague for more than a year of intense contemplation, investigation, and writing.

At Woolsthorpe, Newton formulated three fundamental cornerstones of science and mathematics: first, the foundation of modern calculus, known then as Newton’s theory of fluxions; second, experiments with prisms and light which led to his second masterwork book in 1704, the Optics; and finally, his thoughts on the strange nature of gravitational attraction which led to his ultimate masterwork of 1687, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica which translates from Latin as: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The Principia is universally regarded as the greatest scientific book ever published, being the product of perhaps the most fertile mind in the recorded history of mankind. In the book, Newton combined his prodigious knowledge of Euclidean geometry with fledgling elements of his new calculus to describe mathematically, for the first time, no less than the motion of the planets through the heavens. Also revealed are Newton’s three laws of motion, the basis of modern physics/mechanics, and his notion of universal gravitational attraction.

Newton’s prodigious output during that year-plus of sheltering-in-place at Woolsthorpe is legendary because his investigative conclusions at that time led directly to his later, refined publications and their great advancement of scientific knowledge and method.

In stark contrast to Newton, this writer will be happy to further organize his den, write a few blog posts (such as this one), and clean-out the garage over the next several months. Oh…and I hope to give myself a much-needed haircut, soon! Like Newton, we can all strive, in our own way, to make the best of a terrible situation.

Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!


For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link:

Sir Humphry Davy: Pioneer Chemist and His Invention of the Coal Miner’s “Safe Lamp” at London’s Royal Institution – 1815

humphry-davy-51Among the many examples to be cited of science serving the cause of humanity, one story stands out as exemplary. That narrative profiles a young, pioneering “professional” chemist and his invention which saved the lives of thousands of coal miners while enabling the industrial revolution in nineteenth-century England. The young man was Humphry Davy, who quickly rose to become the most famous chemist/scientist in all of England and Europe by the year 1813. His personal history and the effects of his invention on the growth of “professionalism” in science are a fascinating story.

The year was 1799, and a significant event had occurred. The place: London, England. The setting: The dawning of the industrial revolution, shortly to engulf England and most of Europe. The significant event of which I speak: The chartering of a new, pioneering entity located in the fashionable Mayfair district of London. In 1800, the Royal Institution of Great Britain began operation in a large building at 21 Albemarle Street. Its pioneering mission: To further the cause of scientific research/discovery, particularly as it serves commerce and humanity.


The original staff of the Royal Institution was tiny, headed by its founder, the notable scientist and bon-vivant, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Quickly, by 1802, a few key members of the founding staff, including Rumford, were gone and the fledgling organization found itself in dis-array and close to closing its doors. Just one year earlier, in 1801, two staff additions had materialized, men who were destined to make their scientific marks in physics and chemistry while righting the floundering ship of the R.I. by virtue of their brilliance – Thomas Young and the object of this post, a young, relatively unknown, pioneering chemist from Penzance/Cornwall, Humphry Davy.

By the year 1800, the industrial revolution was gaining momentum in England and Europe. Science and commerce had already begun to harness the forces of nature required to drive industrial progress rapidly forward. James Watt had invented the steam engine whose motive horsepower was now bridled and serving the cause by the year 1800. The looming industrial electrical age was to dawn two decades later, spearheaded by Michael Faraday, the most illustrious staff member of the Royal Institution, ever, and one of the greatest physicists in the history of science.

In the most unlikely of scenarios at the Royal Institution, Humphry Davy interviewed and hired the very young Faraday as a lab assistant (essentially lab “gofer”) in 1813. By that time, Davy’s star had risen as the premier chemist in England and Europe; little did he know that the young Faraday, who had less than a grade-school education and who worked previously as a bookbinder, would, in twenty short years, ascend to the pinnacle of physics and chemistry and proceed to father the industrial electrical age. The brightness of Faraday’s scientific star soon eclipsed even that of Davy’s, his illustrious benefactor and supervisor.

For more on that story click on this link to my previous post on Michael Faraday:

Wanted: Ever More Coal from England’s Mines 
at the Expense of Thousands Lost in Mine Explosions

Within two short years of obtaining his position at the Royal Institution in 1813, young Faraday found himself working with his idol/mentor Davy on an urgent research project – a chemical examination of the properties of methane gas, or “fire damp,” as it was known by the “colliers,” or coal miners.

The need for increasing amounts of coal to fuel the burgeoning boilers and machinery of the industrial revolution had forced miners deeper and deeper underground in search of rich coal veins. Along with the coal they sought far below the surface, the miners encountered larger pockets of methane gas which, when exposed to the open flame of their miner’s lamp, resulted in a growing series of larger and more deadly mine explosions. The situation escalated to a national crisis in England and resulted in numerous appeals for help from the colliers and from national figures.

By 1815, Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution had received several petitions for help, one of which came from a Reverend Dr. Gray from Sunderland, England, who served as a spokesman/activist for the colliers of that region.

Davy and the Miner’s Safe Lamp:
Science Serving the “Cause of Humanity”

Working feverishly from August and into October, 1815, Davy and Faraday produced what was to become known as the “miner’s safe lamp,” an open flame lamp designed not to explode the pockets of methane gas found deep underground. The first announcement of Davy’s progress and success in his work came in this historic letter to the Reverend Gray dated October 30, 1815.


The announcement heralds one of the earliest, concrete examples of chemistry (and science) put to work to provide a better life for humanity.

Royal Institution
Albermarle St.
Oct 30

 My Dear Sir

                               As it was in consequence of your invitation that I endeavored to investigate the nature of the fire damp I owe to you the first notice of the progress of my experiments.

 My results have been successful far beyond my expectations. I shall inclose a little sketch of my views on the subject & I hope in a few days to be able to send a paper with the apparatus for the Committee.

 I trust the safe lamp will answer all the objects of the collier.

 I consider this at present as a private communication. I wish you to examine the lamps I had constructed before you give any account of my labours to the committee. I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it. I beg of you to present my best respects to Mrs. Gray & to remember me to your son.

 I am my dear Sir with many thanks for your hospitality & kindness when I was at Sunderland.


                                                                             H. Davy

This letter is clearly Davy’s initial announcement of a scientifically-based invention which ultimately had a pronounced real and symbolic effect on the nascent idea of “better living through chemistry” – a phrase I recall from early television ads run by a large industrial company like Dupont or Monsanto.


In 1818, Davy published his book on the urgent, but thorough scientific researches he and Faraday conducted in 1815 on the nature of the fire damp (methane gas) and its flammability.


Davy’s coal miner’s safety lamp was the subject of papers presented by Davy before the Royal Society of London in 1816. The Royal Society was, for centuries since its founding by King Charles II in 1662, the foremost scientific body in the world. Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific mind in history, presided as its president from 1703 until his death in 1727. The Society’s presence and considerable influence is still felt today, long afterward.

davy41Davy’s safe lamp had an immediate effect on mine explosions and miner safety, although there were problems which required refinements to the design. The first models featured a wire gauze cylinder surrounding the flame chamber which affected the temperature of the air/methane mixture in the vicinity of the flame. This approach took advantage of the flammability characteristics of methane gas which had been studied so carefully by Davy and his recently hired assistant, Michael Faraday. Ultimately, the principles of the Davy lamp were refined sufficiently to allow the deep-shaft mining of coal to continue in relative safety, literally fueling the industrial revolution.

Humphry Davy was a most unusual individual, as much poet and philosopher in addition to his considerable talents as a scientist. He was close friends with and a kindred spirit to the poets Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. He relished rhetorical flourish and exhibited a personal idealism in his earlier years, a trait on open display in the letter to the Reverend Gray, shown above, regarding his initial success with the miner’s safe lamp.

“I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it.”

As proof of the sincerity of this sentiment, Davy refused to patent his valuable contribution to the safety of thousands of coal miners!

Davy has many scientific “firsts” to his credit:

-Experimented with the physiological effects of the gas nitrous oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and first proposed it as a possible medical/dental anesthetic – which it indeed became years later, in 1829.

-Pioneered the new science of electrochemistry using the largest voltaic pile (battery) in the world, constructed for Davy in the basement of the R.I. Alessandro Volta first demonstrated the principles of the electric pile in 1800, and within two years, Davy was using his pile to perfect electrolysis techniques for separating and identifying “new” fundamental elements from common chemical compounds.

-Separated/identified the elements potassium and sodium in 1807, soon followed by others such as calcium and magnesium.

-In his famous, award-winning Bakerian Lecture of 1806, On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity, Davy shed light on the entire question concerning the constituents of matter and their chemical properties.

-Demonstrated the “first electric light” in the form of an electric arc-lamp which gave off brilliant light.

-Wrote several books including Elements of Chemical Philosophy in 1812.

In addition to his pioneering scientific work, Davy’s heritage still resonates today for other, more general reasons:

-He pioneered the notion of “professional scientist,” working, as he did, as paid staff in one of the world’s first organized/chartered bodies for the promulgation of science and technology, the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

-As previously noted, Davy is properly regarded as the savior of the Royal Institution. Without him, its doors surely would have closed after only two years. His public lectures in the Institution’s lecture theatre quickly became THE rage of established society in and around London. Davy’s charismatic and informative presentations brought the excitement of the “new sciences” like chemistry and electricity front and center to both ladies and gentlemen. Ladies were notably and fashionably present at his lectures, swept up by Davy’s personal charisma and seduced by the thrill of their newly acquired knowledge… and enlightenment!


The famous 1802 engraving/cartoon by satirist/cartoonist James Gillray
Scientific Researches!….New Discoveries on Pneumaticks!…or…An
Experimental Lecture on the Power of Air!

This very famous hand-colored engraving from 1802 satirically portrays an early public demonstration in the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of the powers of the gas, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Humphry Davy is shown manning the gas-filled bellows! Note the well-heeled gentry in the audience including many ladies of London. Davy’s scientific reputation led to his eventual English title of Baronet and the honor of Knighthood, thus making him Sir Humphry Davy.

The lecture tradition at the R.I. was begun by Davy in 1801 and continued on for many years thereafter by the young, uneducated man hired by Davy himself in 1813 as lab assistant. Michael Faraday was to become, in only eight short years, the long-tenured shining star of the Royal Institution and a physicist whose contributions to science surpassed those of Davy and were but one rank below the legacies of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell. Faraday’s lectures at the R.I. were brilliantly conceived and presented – a must for young scientific minds, both professional and public – and the Royal Institution in London remained a focal point of science for more than three decades under Faraday’s reign, there.


The charter and by-laws of the R.I. published in 1800 and an admission ticket to Michael Faraday’s R.I. lecture on electricity written and signed by him: “Miss Miles or a friend / May 1833”

Although once again facing economic hard times, the Royal Institution exists today – in the same original quarters at 21 Albemarle Street. Its fabulous legacy of promulgating science for over 217 years would not exist were it not for Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. It was Davy himself who ultimately offered that the greatest of all his discoveries was …Michael Faraday.

Patent Problems and Intellectual Property: “The Indigestion of Success”

Aside from love, one of the great emotions humans can experience is the thrill of discovery and achievement – being the first to reveal more of nature’s immutable laws governing the cosmos or doing something no one else has been able to do. Patent Warning_1 Some aspects of life inevitably go together – a coupling of cause-and-effect, if you will. Sometimes, we simply cannot have one thing without another. The claim that “there is a price to be paid for everything” seems a truism which ably illustrates that contention of coupled cause-and-effect. In that vein, man’s finest intellectual achievements or physical accomplishments materialize only after significant vested effort is expended. Our personal life experiences leave no doubt that hard work is a necessary, though not sufficient, prerequisite for great success…in any venue. We understand that. Not so obvious is the other price often associated with intellectual achievement and intellectual property, a price which is extracted after the fact – the tedious, ongoing, and costly effort required to establish and maintain the legal rights to the intellectual property behind any significant achievement.

I call this second price to be paid for success “the indigestion of success” which is often so severe as to result literally in ulcers if not merely pervasive, never-ending discontent.

The “indigestion of success” begins with proving one’s priority of invention while establishing patent rights, and it continues seemingly forever while vigilantly protecting those rights against usurpers. The motivation to defend one’s intellectual property is typically financial, but, understandably, the battle becomes distinctly a matter of personal principle as we will see…and the consequences can be tragic. It is difficult to overstate the high price – both financially and emotionally – of defending intellectual property and priority, yet this surcharge on success is inevitably demanded of inventors, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The list of such examples is varied and fascinating, stretching far back in recorded history. Gaileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday, three of the greatest physicists of all time were each affected by priority controversies during their careers – especially Newton, as we shall see. In the realms of engineering and business, Thomas Edison, Howard Armstrong (radio’s greatest inventor/engineer), Robert Noyce (of integrated circuit fame), and Steve Jobs of Apple Computer were all enveloped by priority controversies and patent battles. Even the Wright brothers, the well-documented founders of modern aviation paid a stiff price defending their marvelous invention, the controllable “flying machine.”

The Wright Brothers: Hard Work, Triumph, then Disillusionment

Wright Glider 1902_1 I just finished reading David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers, which relates the incredible story of the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio – bicycle mechanics/salesmen who created the first true “flying machine”…in their spare time! McCullough is a consummate teller of true stories, but the story of these two men tests the line separating fact from fiction because their stunning success seemed so improbable. The truth is, the Wright Brothers “invented” and successfully flew the first full-sized, self-powered, controllable airplane – a staggering accomplishment for two young men with no formal technical credentials. Their ultimate success was rooted in a fascination at the prospect of manned flight coupled with a single-minded, driven determination to do whatever it takes to accomplish their dream of flying. The two brothers constitute the very best examples of self-made men… engineers and flyers, in their case. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly documented as to seem unassailable and safe from thieves who would steal in the courts of patent law, yet it was not quite that simple. It never is. Author McCullough paints a clear picture on his pages of just how technically challenging their task actually was. What also emerges is the sad turn of events their triumph became once the airplane was designed, tested, documented, and patented. Wilbur Wright, the brilliant engineering mind for whom no technical challenge seemed too large, died early in 1912 at the young age of forty-five years. The official cause of death was typhoid fever, but it seems Wilbur’s spirit was dying for quite some time before his body expired. In May of 1910, the brothers, who did all their own flying from the project’s onset in 1900, went up together in their Wright Flyer for the very first time – some seven years after Orville’s first flight at Kitty Hawk. Their disciplined methodology throughout the project dictated that, should there be an accident, at least one of them should survive to carry on the work. Their flight together that day seemed their tacit acknowledgement that they had completed their life’s dream; all that remained was to form and grow a profitable company which would carry on their work and insure a comfortable livelihood for the brothers and their immediate relatives.

WilburWright7[1]By 1912, two years had passed since Wilbur Wright had last done what he truly loved to do: Piloting the Wright Flyer while perfecting its design. His weeks and months the past two years were spent on business trips to New York and Washington and in courtrooms defending the patent portfolio he and Orville had assembled as the backbone of their new Wright Company… for the manufacture of airplanes. In author McCullough’s account, Orville took note of Wilbur’s restless discontent with the tedium and exasperations of establishing their company, noting that after a day spent in offices dealing with business and patent matters, Wilbur would “come home white.”

Wilbur, himself, wrote of the patent entanglements: “When we think of what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

Within several years of Wilbur’s death, Orville Wright had sold the Wright Company to others, preferring a peaceful, retiring life to one spent constantly battling corporate demons and those who would usurp the brothers’ past and future accomplishments. His mission for the remainder of his long life: To represent his brother while defending the less materialistic aspects of the Wright brothers’ legacy. I believe I would have done precisely the same, were I in his shoes. Other notable, historical figures in similar circumstances made sadly different decisions when faced with the indigestion of success and the never-ending need to protect intellectual property. The two examples that follow vividly illustrate just how bad these matters of priority and intellectual property can become, especially for the most-principled of participants.

Edwin Howard Armstrong: Radio’s Greatest Inventor/Engineer and Tragic Victim of His Own Success and the Patent System

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. Howard Armstrong was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954. Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion vacuum tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind Lee De Forest’s recent invention of the Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery, and an important discovery it was for the infant science of “wireless radio.” Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes.

Armstrong Patent_2Armstrong’s 1914 patent on the regenerative receiving circuit – one of the foundations of early wireless radio and a gateway to efficient tube-based radio transmitters, as well. Armstrong_Regen_1 Armstrong’s historic, handwritten chronological account of inventing the regenerative circuit – page one of six; likely written around 1920 to serve as evidence in the litigation with De Forest over Armstrong’s regeneration patent. Note the Sept. 22, 1912 date of his triumph (near the bottom).

In 1914, Lee De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration went back and forth, lasting twenty years and finally ending up in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor – the same view held today. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of Armstrong’s troubles with the patent courts and those who would take advantage of his work.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create. By licensing his many important patents to these corporations, Armstrong became a very wealthy man. At one time, he was the largest stockholder in the giant RCA Corporation. Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate bureaucracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington. Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations which were treading on those rights, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back fueled by his personal principles of fair play, all the while dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Armstrong's Suicide    004Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths” he helped create. Final postscript: After Armstrong’s death, his estranged wife, Marion, took up her husband’s ongoing patent battles with the Goliaths of the radio industry. She eventually prevailed in every single case!

Inventor of the Calculus: Isaac Newton or the German Mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz?

History’s most ardent defender of his intellectual property also happened to be the greatest scientist/mathematician of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. As vindictive as he was brilliant, Newton waged one of history’s most vicious priority battles with Gottfried Leibniz over credit for the development of the calculus, that ubiquitous, indispensable mathematical tool of the engineer and scientist. Newton formulated its fundamentals in 1665/66, the famous “miracle year” spent at his mother’s homestead in isolation from the great plague which swept through England at the time. GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689[1]Newton’s peerless scientific self-discipline tended to completely desert him when challenged by others on matters of intellectual priority which he felt belonged to him. Leibniz and Robert Hooke were two men who famously felt the full force of Newton’s rage in such matters. For Newton and his circumstances, there was no real money at stake – only prestige and ego, and Newton’s ego was well-developed… and sensitive. Today, both Newton and Leibniz are credited with independently developing the calculus – essentially true, although it appears certain that Leibniz had unauthorized access to some of Newton’s early personal papers on the subject. In that sense, Newton is regarded as the “primary” developer of calculus. Leibniz never quite recovered from the savage and telling effects of Newton’s vindictiveness which was well publicized in scientific circles and which reduced the great Newton to unprincipled deceits in his efforts to discredit his rival. In Newton’s mind, much more was at stake than mere money: For him, personal satisfaction and the ego-satisfying prospect of scientific immortality were far more important motivators. In his defense, one could argue that, for Newton, the long-term stakes riding on his efforts to receive due credit for his brilliance were much higher than most. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, Newton’s personal reputation suffered significantly even if his scientific reputation remained unsullied over the dispute with Leibniz.

What Would You Do?

Milton_Wright_1889[1]If you were ever in the position of enjoying a significant personal success that had already conferred substantial wealth upon you, yet huge wealth beckons you or whoever else takes the enterprise still further – what would you do? Like Orville did, I would have heeded Bishop Milton Wright’s early admonition to his children (paraphrased here) that greed is bad and leads to grief; be content with sufficient money to sustain a comfortable life and require nothing more beyond that than the normal pleasures of life and living. The Bishop also warned against temper and ego. The Bishop was a very wise man; the brothers received some very informed guidance.

 “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Click here to get to last week’s post, The Brothers Wright had “The Right Stuff”