Today’s random selection, brought to you by the magic of ceditra, comes courtesy of page 481 of The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2010:
1807: Robert Fulton made first practical steamboat trip; Left New York City Aug 17, reached Albany, 150 mi away in 32 hrs.
What leaps out at me in this almanac entry was the word “practical”. This qualifier term highlights that Fulton neither invented the steam engine (Thomas Newcomen, 1705) or the first practical steamboat (William Symington, 1802).
What Fulton did do, and why we know his name today and why he gets entries in almanacs, is to take someone else’s idea (Newcomen, Symington, James Watt, John Fitch, et.al.), copy it, tweak it, and then (here’s the genius part) market the snot out of it.
Fulton didn’t just plop the Clermont into the water in August of 1807, steam up to Albany, and call it a day. No, what he did was to very publicly let it be known what type of craft he was building, and invite some guests for the inaugural trip. After the success of the maiden voyage of the Clermont, people began to see the utility of steamboat transportation along the Hudson.
That is the hallmark of a true genius. The genius is not the one who creates the widget. The genius, and the name we remember (and if all goes well, the one who gets obscenely rich) is the one who takes the widget and gets you to buy it.
The world is rife with examples of one technology or individual being overshadowed by another that was simply better publicized such as:
- Alexander Graham Bell gets credit for the telephone, but what of Elisha Gray and Antonino Meucci
- VHS won the videocassette recorder wars, but some contend Betmax was superior.
- Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he made it easier for people to buy his car.
However, there is one component to this story I am missing.
After 1807, if you wanted to use a steamboat on the Hudson River, it had to be Fulton’s. This is because he and his partner, Robert Livingston, had been granted a monopoly by the New York State Legislature for “navigating all boats that might be propelled by steam, on all waters within the territory or jurisdiction of the State, for the term of twenty years.”
So, maybe the hallmark of the true genius is not to revolutionize, but is, instead, to monopolize.
I feel there is another, greater example than Bell, VHS, or Ford that I could bring up to highlight my point about a company that rules the skies but only by acting like Fulton in the method of copy-tweak-publicize.
But, that is a post for another day, but take my WORD for it that I will EXCEL to act as the EXPLORER for this subject.