The 5 Strangest Cases of Simultaneous Invention

We tend to have a slightly romanticized idea of how scientists work. In our mind's eye, we have a picture of an individual, perhaps stroking his beard thoughtfully as apples rain down on him, suddenly leaping to his feet and shouting "Eureka!" Then, after a bit of quick work with some graph paper, BAM, the world has indoor plumbing.

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Cracked, as always, salutes you, Sir Thomas Crapper.

But that's not necessarily how invention works. Aside from the fact that these scientists and inventors often work in teams, even those teams don't exist in a vacuum. They read the scientific literature, and attend conferences, and exchange correspondence with their peers, and in general absorb the thoughts and ideas of their day, thoughts and ideas that are accessible to everyone else. Indeed, it turns out that many of the biggest inventions and discoveries of all time haven't been made by a single person, but by many people, working more or less independently, in some cases barely finishing their research before they make comical sprints to the patent office, trousers hanging around their ankles.

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Cracked also salutes this probably apocryphal story of Sir Thomas Crapper's pratfall-laden sprint to the patent office.

Here then are some of the most famous discoveries of all time and their equally famous discoverers, and also the sad people in the shadows who discovered the same things seconds too late.

#5. Calculus

Depending on your level of education, you'll recognize calculus either as the study of limits, infinitesimals, and rates of change or as a spooky, possibly magical practice performed by people with thicker glasses and thinner arms than you.

"Hey Poindexter. Calculate the area under your mom when she's crab walking at me."

Making the probably safe assumption that most of you fall into the latter category, I'll just summarize it here: Calculus is important, and it forms the bedrock for the study of physics, engineering, economics, and essentially every other damned thing we use each day.

Including your mom.

The invention of calculus is now widely credited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton almost certainly came upon the idea first around 1666, but he didn't tell anyone about it, because he was kind of a wierdo. Leibniz, starting in about 1673, came by the discovery himself from a slightly different angle, also developing a much better method of notation that we still use today. Leibniz then formally published his results in advance of Newton, although Newton's papers had been circulating informally for some time. Whether Leibniz saw these papers or not would cause no small amount of hair-pulling among the wider world of math groupies.

Seriously, this was really important to a lot of overly thin dudes.

You see, having the inventor of calculus hang out in the same social clubs as you was really important to these guys, and for years afterward these math groupies nearly came to blows over whose champion invented calculus first. It wasn't until decades later that everyone calmed down enough to acknowledge that they both basically invented it independently.

There's a larger point in all this, though, which will reappear in the examples to come. Although both men were certainly geniuses, this was a problem that was probably going to get solved soon anyways. Their work was based on the work of others, widely circulated among the thinkers of the day. If for some reason Newton and Leibniz had ignored math and devoted all their time and energies to wig maintenance ...

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Well. More time.

... someone else would have probably put together calculus within a few years.

#4. Theory of Evolution

Evolution, the process by which species change over multiple generations, is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of biology and the natural world. (Unless you don't think that, in which case it's magic.) And as every schoolchild knows, evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin after he traveled the world and found that one island full of monkeys capable of wearing human clothes.

Darwin: "Thank you, Chuckles. When they remember me, I shall be remembering you."

Darwin wasn't quite the first to speculate that species could change over time; that idea had already been floating around among scientists for awhile. But even then it was considered a little radical, and no one could quite figure out how it worked. Even Darwin would take a couple decades after his great voyage to finally formulate the key mechanism that we now call natural selection. But finally he figured it out, and he was about to step into history when some asshole sent him an essay explaining the whole thing.

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Alfred Russel Wallace, pictured here snaking his place in history.

That asshole was Alfred Russel Wallace, and I use the term in jest, because in reality he appears to be one of the nicest guys in the history of science. He only sent his theory to Darwin because he loved the guy so much and would allow his theory to be presented jointly with some of Darwin's notes. A few months later, when Darwin's landmark The Origin of Species was published, Wallace didn't seek any of the limelight.

Patche99z via Wikimedia Commons
Statue limelight.

#3. Telephone

If you're not familiar with the concept, a brief refresher: A telephone is that strange-looking box at your grandparents' place that can't do very much.

"Breaker Breaker Operator? Klondike-724 please. The British are coming!"

Even though we've long since replaced these with sexting rectangles, telephones were a pretty big deal for a long time, making instantaneous, long distance communication available to the layperson. Telegraphs had been around for awhile, but their unintuitive method of operation meant that any communication had to go through people wearing green visors.

Which made sexting awkward, to say the least.

The key step, turning sound waves into waves of electrical current, took some doing to figure out, the breakthrough now being widely credited to Alexander Graham Bell. This made a lot of sense; Bell was by all accounts kind of an obsessive maniac, prone to walking around with severed human ears to study them. Who else would crack this problem?

Well, how about the guy who walked into the patent office on the exact same day Bell did, with basically the same invention?

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"And I'm not going to be the same gutless pushover Wallace was."

This was Elisha Gray, himself a prolific inventor, and the owner of a telegraph supplies company. He too had come up with a device capable of turning sound waves into fluctuating electrical current.

What happened next is complicated. It involved lawyers, and shadowy visits to the patent office, and bribed patent clerks, and probably some great 19th century insults. The end result of it all being a huge controversy about whether Bell read Gray's preliminary patent paperwork and copied parts of his invention. Understand that this was all before either of the men got their damned inventions to work. Indeed, Bell's famous first words on the telephone occurred while he was testing a device that looked an awful lot like Gray's patent application.

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"Mr. Watson, come here and check out this great thing I stole."

That's being a little glib; there's ample evidence that Bell came up with all the important parts of the telephone on his own, and even had a greater understanding of the problem than Gray. But that Bell got the trillion-dollar patent and Gray got superjacked seems a little unfair.

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