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Invention can take many people, many years

Flying machines through the years
How do new things get invented? Inventing new things isn't easy. Invention can take many people, many years. Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines in the 1400s. However, it wasn't until the 1800s that someone else, Otto Lilienthal, got a glider to fly. A glider is a flying craft that doesn’t have an engine. The Wright Brothers' didn't fly an engine-powered airplane until 1902. Now we can all fly just about anywhere in the world. You can read more about the history of flight on the NASA website. It took a long time for automobiles to be invented, too.


Sometimes it's not clear who invented something

Sometimes many people researched a topic, and each one contributed a new discovery or invention or idea. Then, it can be hard to say who should get credit for the invention. It can even be hard to say which thing should be classified as the first one of those things.

Leonardo da Vinci designed some car-like vehicles in the 1400s. There was also supposedly a wind-driven vehicle designed by Guido da Vigevano in 1335. And, there may have been a steam-powered vehicle built for a Chinese emperor in the 1600s. The US Library of Congress credits German Karl Benz with the first true car around 1885. And, Henry Ford is generally credited with figuring out how to mass-produce cars. Mass production means to make large numbers of something in a repeatable, orderly way.


Many discoveries and inventions were required before the telephone and Internet

Semaphore hello world Signal flags are one method of visual communication still used today.
These days, we are used to making phone calls, sending emails, and sharing status updates. But, these things required invention of the telephone first. And, inventing the telephone required us to build basic understanding of electricity and magnetism. It took thousands of years from observing electricity in nature to understanding that electricity and magnetism are related, and that electromagnetic energy moves in waves. It took many more years to be able to send the first telegraph message over wires. From there, it took time to figure out how to send telegrams without wires. Then, figuring out how to make voice telephone calls took additional exploration after that. Before telegraph systems and telephones were invented, people sent messages manually. For example, they sent a messenger on horseback, or sent smoke signals, or beat drums. Smoke signals and drums require the people to be close enough to see the message or hear it. Messengers on horseback or on foot could go much farther, but then it could take a long time to deliver the message.


Many people made key discoveries that enabled the basic understanding of electricity needed to invent telegraphy

Discoveries in telegraphy Top: Samuel Morse discovered how to use patterns in electric currents to send message over a wire. Bottom: James Clerk Maxwell discovered the mathematical relationships between electricity and magnetism.
Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity and showed that lightning is electrical. But, Arabs may have figured that out four hundred years prior.

Alessandro Volta discovered that copper and zinc in salt water can produce electricity. This discovery showed that chemical reactions can create electric currents. From this discovery, Volta figured out how to make a battery work. His invention, called the voltaic pile, was created around 1800. The words 'volt' and 'voltage' are named after him.

Hans Christian Orsted discovered in 1820 that a wire carrying an electric current can move a nearby magnetic needle on a compass. The magnetic needle turned to point at a right angle from the wire. This was one of the early discoveries that electricity and magnetism are closely related.

Andre-Marie Ampere showed that parallel wires, both with an electric current, will act like magnets and attract each other if the current is running in the same direction, or repel each other if their currents are flowing in opposite directions. And Michael Faraday discovered in 1831 that a changing magnetic field will induce an electric current.

Then, Samuel Morse figured out how to use patterns in the current in a wire to convey information. We call this encoding of data Morse Code. The first telegraph message was carried in 1844 between Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland.

Later, James Clerk Maxwell discovered the mathematical relationships between electricity and magnetism, published in 1855. Maxwell discovered that electromagnetism moves, or propogates, through space at the speed of light. From this, he concluded that light is a form of electromagnetic energy. Hertz also demonstrated low frequency electromagnetic radiation, called radio waves.

Gugliemo Marconi began experimenting with wireless telegraphy in the late 1800s. He managed to send a signal - a single letter 's' - across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901. Marconi's company became well established selling wireless telegraphy 'radios'. It was a Marconi radio that the Titanic used to signal that it had hit an iceberg and was sinking. To invent wireless telegraphy, Marconi had to use the inventions of people before him. However, there are also disputes as to whether he is the person who should get credit for the invention at all. Sometimes multiple people are experimenting in an area at the same time. Sometimes they may end up making similar discoveries.


Disagreements over credit for inventions are common

Like many inventions, there were disputes over who should get credit for wireless radio. Marconi's company became quite successful, but others also had claims to very similar inventions. According to a History.com article on Marconi, Russian physicist Alexander Popov had figured out how to broadcast in the mid 1890s. And Nikola Tesla - for whom the Tesla automobile brand is named - had claimed to invent the wireless telegraph in 1893, before Marconi. In fact, some of Marconi's patents - that is, legal claims to inventions - were declared invalid due to Tesla's prior work. Even now, companies and individuals often argue over who made an invention first. Lawsuits related to inventions are quite common.


Some inventors were scientists or mathematicians, Others were just curious people tinkering with ideas

Ben Franklin dropped out of school at age ten. Michael Faraday was a self-educated scientist. James Clerk Maxwell was a highly-educated mathematician. Hertz had a PhD and was a professor of Physics. Gugliemo Marconi was born into nobility and was privately educated. Regardless of background, the common thread that weaves these people together is a curiosity about how things work and a willingness to work to figure them out.


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