Lessons in Innovation from Stigler’s Law of Eponymy

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I recently came across an idea called Stigler’s law of eponymy. It’s a quirky but neat idea that interests me because I think it teaches us some useful lessons about innovation and patent protection.

Stigler’s Law of Eponymy

Stigler’s law of eponymy says that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. It is a ‘law’ in the sense that it observes a commonly observed trend (as opposed to being a theorem, which applies with absolute certainty).

This is an interesting phenomenon and we’ll look at examples of it in action shortly. But what really grabbed my attention about Stigler’s law is that it is self-referential, and deliberately so. Stephen Stigler, the statistics professor after whom the law is named, intentionally appropriated the idea from sociologist Robert Merton so that the law itself follows its own principle. Very neat.

Stigler’s Law in Action

There are many examples of Stigler’s law in science and mathematics. Halley’s Comet was not discovered by Edmund Halley; the earliest observations of the comet date back to at least 240 BC. Pythagoras’ Theorem was known to Babylonian mathematicians earlier than Pythagoras. Fibonacci did not discover his namesake sequence of numbers; they were first described by Indian mathematicians in ancient times and other European mathematicians after that.

The law also applies outside the world of science, for example in geo-politics. The New World is replete with place names that are named after an Old World explorer rather than the indigenous people who first discovered them: Mount Cook; Ayers Rock; Mount Everest; the Tasman Sea (although many such geographical features are reverting to their original, indigenous names).

There are also examples of misnamed inventions in the world of technology. The Bessemer process, an industrial process for mass-producing steel from iron, may be one example. The process is likely to have existed in Asia for several centuries before Henry Bessemer obtained a patent for the process in 1856, and an American inventor William Kelly is claimed to have also discovered the process in 1851.

The Matthew Effect and Miscredit for Inventions

A similar idea is the Matthew Effect. This is the observation that already-eminent scientists usually get more credit for an idea than comparatively unknown people, even if the unknown people got there first, or in collaboration with the eminent scientist.

This effect is commonplace in the world of invention. Many well-known inventions were not invented by the people to whom credit is traditionally given. Here are just a few examples (of very, very many):

  • The steam engine, commonly thought to have been invented by James Watt, has ancient origins, with early forms designed in ancient Greece and Egypt. Closer in time to Watt, but still earlier, steam engines were built by Thomas Savery, Bento de Moura Portugal and Thomas Newcomen;
  • There are many people who invented forms of the incandescent light bulb prior to Thomas Edison, including Joseph Swan and Humphry Davy to name just two;
  • Various others have laid claim to inventing the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell;
  • The development of the smartphone is vastly more complicated than attributing its invention to Steve Jobs, or even to Apple; and
  • There are several alleged instances of heavier-than-air powered flying craft (aeroplanes) flying earlier than the Wright brothers, including Richard Pearse, a New Zealand farmer and inventor.

What does all this tell us? Well, it certainly highlights that history credits the wrong people with discoveries and achievements. Of course, that is true, and Stigler’s law underscores the old maxim that history is written by the ‘victors’ (or, at least, those in a position of privilege able to influence how history is recounted). There is often a complex mix of politics, marketing, prejudice and discrimination at play for the inaccurate allocation of credit for invention in the public eye.

Such accreditation errors should not be dismissed or overlooked, but this article concentrates on other lessons we can take from the phenomenon, and specifically lessons that should be understood by modern-day technology innovators seeking to commercialise their ideas.

Timing is Everything

Firstly, being the first to develop something new is not enough. Timing is everything.

Some technological ‘firsts’ are too far ahead of their time to be successful. The motorised scooter could not thrive until battery technology had caught up and was small enough, light enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to make the scooter viable. Battery technology is also critical for electronic devices, as is other enabling technology like wireless communications.

A commercially successful inventor needs to be not just technically creative, but also have knowledge of the wider technology environment to know when the conditions are right for their invention to take-off.

The saying “its not what you know but who you know” is also very apt. Many of the well-known inventors of history were well connected to people in positions of influence. The same requirement is true for modern day inventors to succeed, where people in positions of influence could be marketers, investors, larger technology companies who may be licensees or acquirers of the technology, or (dare we say it) social media influencers.

The ability to judge the public mood and whether the time is right for an idea to flourish is also valuable. And, of course, there is a lot of luck involved.

Patentable Inventions are Incremental Steps

A key lesson that is very relevant to the world of patents is that technological invention is never a light-bulb moment. Instead, invention is a small incremental step building on the culmination of many small incremental steps that have gone before it.

As a patent attorney I often meet engineers that have a misconceived notion of what is necessary for an invention to be patentable. Too often, people have the idea in their heads of the genius inventor who has contributed a sudden, giant leap forward in human knowledge, and that this level of invention is required to obtain a patent. This is not the case. Every invention is an improvement on something that has gone before it and a giant leap is not required to obtain a patent.

This is worth bearing in mind when it comes to considering whether to protect an invention with a patent. The two principle requirements for an invention to be patentable are that the invention must be a) new and b) not an obvious modification of existing technology. Generally speaking, an invention that is different in some way to previous technology and that improves upon that technology in a way that provides a technical advantage, even if slight, stands a good prospect of being patentable. Many people I meet don’t think their invention is sufficiently clever to be patentable when in fact what they have done is to incrementally improve on existing technology. Incentivising innovation by providing the ability to protect such incremental improvements is the fundamental reason the patent system exists in the first place.

Besides this, when it comes to deciding whether to file a patent application, there is perhaps a more important question to ask than whether the invention is patentable, and that is whether there is sufficient value in the invention to give it a try.

Conclusion

To conclude, Stigler’s law of eponymy illustrates that the success of technological innovation relies on a host of factors beyond the idea itself.

When it comes to patents, consider the following quote attributed to Mark Twain, which I have adapted to neutralise the historical gender bias:

“It takes a thousand people to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last person gets the credit and we forget the others. They added their little mite — that is all they did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.”

Twain’s “little mite” might be little, but it is patentable, as are the little mites that came before it.