The hero myth

To expand on yesterday’s post, I don’t think the problem with Mark Bolas being written out of the Oculus Rift story was the fault of Palmer Luckey. Rather, it was the fault of us, collectively.

In the U.S. we tend to frame all such stories as a “Hero myth”. The first question we ask is often “who was the individual who did this?” The idea that a story can have multiple heroes (which in reality is generally the case) is often too complex to form a compelling national narrative.

So we say that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lightbulb, that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, that James Clerk Maxwell invented Maxwell’s equations. None of these statements is really true, but they are all convenient myths that have satisfied somebody’s agenda, and that were much easier for people to keep in mind than the far messier and more complicated reality.

3 thoughts on “The hero myth”

  1. And Ken Perlin invented the Perlin Noise algorithm. 🙂

    I think in every inventor story we hold, there’s at least one contribution that the person we remember made that makes him stand out from previous work or other contributors. Edison’s bulb was long-lasting and commercially viable. Bell’s phone did stem from his own original ideas, and he got the patent first. And, although Maxwell’s equations as we know them were derived by someone else, it was Maxwell who thought to connect light and electromagnetism into a simplifying series of equations.

    Each of these stories seems to highlight a different kind of replacement. Edison built on previous ideas and became remembered for making them more useful. Bell worked concurrently and independently on similar ideas as his contemporaries, but got credit first. And Maxwell created the original idea, and maintained credit throughout successive improvements on it.

    In a case like the Oculus, I think Palmer may be like Edison. While others had worked with electrical lighting before Edison, he was the one who first developed a product that the consumer could use. Then he marketed it in a memorable demonstration.

    While others may have worked with VR for its own sake, or maybe with some attempt at a consumer product, Palmer was able to not only develop a usable product, but also market it and make it remembered. And thus, he himself will be remembered.

    I’m sure as history gets written, inquiring people will be able to find out about Mark Bolas, just as I was able to find out about Joseph Swan, Elisha Gray, and Oliver Heaviside.

    As to the justice or injustice of this approach to fame in invention, maybe the truth is that simply inventing a new or useful thing isn’t enough to get a mark in history. Maybe it has to do with the culture of the field or the ambition of the inventor. Maybe it’s just a matter of being the lucky one who gets noticed.

  2. CC: I think you have a very fair point.

    The reason that the Bolas/Luckey situation may have rankled with me was that Mark was very supportive of and instrumental in the advancement of the evolution of *this* particular instance of the technology — not just the overarching field of “VR using cheap lenses and hardware dewarping”.

    A few corrections: (1) The lightbulb certainly existed before Edison. That being said, I completely agree that Edison’s team made the key breakthrough to commercial viability; (2) There is significant evidence that Bell’s lawyers “borrowed” the idea of vibration of electrodes in water from Elisha Gray; (3) Maxwell did not maintain credit through successive improvements. Heaviside was only written out of the story of his own formulation much later, in 1940, in an influential article by Einstein — a clear example of the hero myth in action.

    By the way, I did actually invent the noise algorithm — all by myself. It’s one of those (maybe rare) cases where the real story is very simple. 🙂

  3. One of my favorite science history books is “Tube: The Invention of Television” (by Fisher & Fisher). It recounts the whole whacky, messy history of TV’s invention.

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