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6 Famous Inventors Who Didn’t Invent the Thing They’re Famous For

Edison Lightbulb
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In today’s world, inventors are among the most revered people of all. We almost can’t help but admire someone who came up with a useful app or created a cool tech solution to a common problem.

That same admiration extends back through history, as well. Few accomplishments throughout history seem as impressive as inventing something that changed the world.

However, inventions often come with a healthy side dose of scandal. A new idea or product might arrive alongside heated debate as to who really came up with it. History has also unfairly credited some well-known inventors with creations that other people made first. We’re here to set the record straight—check out the real stories behind these famous inventors’ legacies.

Thomas Edison’s Lightbulb

Edison’s name is practically synonymous with the “lightbulb”—not least of all thanks to the newfound popularity of old-fashioned Edison bulbs. However, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb at all.

Edison gets the credit because he patented the lightbulb in 1879, and helped refine it into a commercially viable product. However, the first lightbulb was invented in 1840 by Warren de la Rue, a British scientist.

De la Rue used a platinum filament in his bulb, which made it too expensive for everyday use. Then, in 1860, an English chemist named Joseph Swan developed a light bulb with a filament made of carbonized paper. This made lightbulbs far more affordable, and he patented the design in 1878. However, Swan’s design still wasn’t the most practical. Edison refined it further with a new, more efficient filament design.

After some back-and-forth about who owned the design (Edison even sued Swan at one point), the pair merged forces into the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company. However, history has mostly forgotten Swan’s contributions, and Edison usually gets the credit for the electric lightbulb.

Galileo’s Telescope

silhouette of man and telescope against starry night sky
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Galileo Galilei, the famous astronomer, sometimes called the “father of modern science,” is widely held to be the inventor of the telescope. However, a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey applied for the first telescope patent back in 1608. The invention may not have been his, either, but he was the first one to patent the design.

Galileo still accomplished something impressive, though: he heard about the Dutch telescope in 1609 and quickly designed his own without ever actually seeing the original design. He also improved upon the design, making his far more powerful. Also, it was his idea to use the telescope to look at objects in space rather than just far-away objects on Earth. He didn’t invent the telescope—he just made it better.

Albert Einstein’s Mass-Energy Equivalence Equation

While Einstein certainly deserves credit for his many revolutionary contributions to the field of physics, he didn’t invent his most famous equation: E = mc². The important mass-energy equivalence equation actually came from earlier scientists.

According to one historian, an Italian industrialist named Olinto De Pretto published the equation first in 1903. (Einstein published it in 1905.) However, another scientist, J. J. Thompson, had worked out a similar equation even earlier: m = (4/3) E/c². And, yet another scientist, Henri Poincaré, published his equation m = E/c² just a few months before Einstein’s revolutionary paper came out.

Of course, Einstein wasn’t stealing ideas— it’s normal for scientists to build upon the work that came before them. And, none of those other scientists came close to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which gave important context to the equation. Still, they deserve some credit for helping to work out one of science’s most important equations of all.

Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone

Bell's first telephone. Publicity photo ca. 1915-1925
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Yes, that’s right—Bell didn’t invent the telephone, his most famous invention. He simply gets remembered for it today because he was the first to patent the design successfully.

An Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci had the original idea for a telegraph that “talked.” He turned his idea into reality in 1849, and by 1871, he was ready to unveil the invention to the world. However, personal difficulties kept him from holding onto the design.

Bell refined the concept into a working telephone and patented it in 1876. Yet, a professor named Elisha Gray was working on the same thing at the same time. Gray sent his lawyer to the patent office on the same day that Bell sent his.

Some stories state that Gray’s lawyer submitted the paperwork first, but Bell’s lawyer was able to push the patent office into awarding Bell the first patent. Regardless of what really happened at the patent office that day, Bell ultimately got the credit for the invention.

Alexander Fleming’s Penicillin

Everyone loves a good story of scientific discovery, even though those stories are often more fiction than fact. Legend has it that Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, walked into his lab one morning to discover that a bit of mold had eradicated some bacteria from a test dish. In a stroke of brilliance, he realized that this could be a valuable medical application for fighting bacterial diseases.

In truth, though, his peers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were the ones who pushed to turn his discovery, penicillin, into a medical breakthrough—Fleming didn’t really believe in its medicinal uses. A French medical student named Ernest Duchesne discovered the medical properties of mold decades before Fleming did.

In fact, ancient cultures seem to have known that some molds are antibacterial for thousands of years. But Duchesne’s research on a mold called Penicillium glaucum brought the knowledge into the modern day. He found that this mold could rescue guinea pigs from bacterial diseases.

Duchesne’s mold was not quite the same as the one that would ultimately produce penicillin, so the antibiotic he discovered was not as powerful as Fleming’s. Still, he deserves credit for being the first modern researcher to harness the antibacterial power of mold.

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

The Wright Brothers flying "machine"
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Orville and Wilbur Wright, whose last name poetically rhymes with “flight,” are widely known as the inventors of the airplane. However, Connecticut lawmakers have claimed that a man named Gustave Whitehead actually made the first flight in 1901—two years before the Wright brothers took off.

That said, many people don’t think there’s enough credible evidence to prove that Whitehead flew first. Richard Pearse of New Zealand had his first flight one year later, in 1902, which is more widely accepted as fact. And, Pearse still beat the Wrights by a year.

However, Pearce was more interested in privacy than publicity, so the fame and fortune for the first flight went to the Wright brothers. The Wright brothers certainly did more to pioneer the aviation industry, but they weren’t the first to get it off the ground.

The question of who invented anything is nearly always a difficult one, as almost all inventions rely on earlier efforts to become successful. Nothing, as they say, happens in a vacuum. These inventions, in particular, offer convoluted origin stories that suggest multiple people deserve credit—but in truth, most of the world’s inventions took more than one person to make.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »