When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, he went down in history as the ‘inventor’ of a telecommunications system that forever changed the way we interact. When Matti Makkonen – AKA ‘the Father of SMS’ – died last month, few people outside the industry had heard the name. Why is one man an icon of technology and the other relatively obscure?
Makkonen – who died last month at the age of 63 – was a titan of mobile technology. It was Makkonen who, in 1984, first pitched the concept of text messaging over cellular networks. In the process, he kicked off a communications revolution. The trillions of text messages sent every year are his legacy.
But while Bell’s household device made him a household name, SMS is not popularly associated with any one individual. Industry insiders have dubbed Makkonen ‘the Father of SMS’ – but he rejected the mantle, swatting away such hyperbolic adulation by repeatedly referencing the contributions of others, and downplaying his own. This modesty, and little else, separates the Finnish innovator from his more celebrated forebears.
In a 2012 interview with the BBC (conducted via SMS, natch), Makkonen said: “I did not consider SMS a personal achievement but a result of joint effort to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.”
Makkonen’s deference to the principles of scientific collaboration is laudable – but it’s not going to land him in any books of famous quotes. Bell, meanwhile, said: “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
The canonization of Bell and Edison owes more to their business savvy and talent for self-promotion than to any one mythical moment of inspiration.
It’s certainly more memorable, it sounds profound (though it could just be a deepity), and is just one of many bon mots uttered by Bell and parroted by the rest of us since.
Likewise, Thomas Edison’s inspirational-quote-counter is off the charts despite it being widely known that his inventions – you know, the things he’s famous for – were largely the work of others. Similar opprobrium has been heaped on Bell for allegedly destroying the telephone patent of Antonio Meucci, the Italian inventor whose ‘teletrofono’ beat Bell to the punch by a decade.
The canonization of Bell and Edison owes more to their business savvy and talent for self-promotion than to any one mythical moment of inspiration. Edison himself said, in a classic humblebrag, that he had never failed, just ‘found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ He did fail to ever mention the names of the employees, partners and competitors whose work he variously exploited, bought or stole outright. This giant stood on the shoulders of dwarves, and crushed them. Even Nikola Tesla, whose mythology posits him as the ‘true’ inventor of much of the modern world, was not the only person working on the technologies that made his name.
This is not to suggest that the most famous inventors in history are pure charlatans. More than twenty people are thought to have had their ‘lightbulb moment’ before Edison. But what good is that to the rest of us if we’re still sitting in the dark? Edison might have been technically average – but he was a genius at marketing and manufacturing.
The monumental cocktail of ego and untrammeled power required to carve your name in history for the work of others is only part of the story. Technological innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s constantly informed and updated by a global pool of talent, sharing their knowledge willingly or not. The lone – possibly mad – scientist, frothing and wild-eyed in his dusty workshop is a myth.
Changing the world with a brilliant idea won’t make you rich and famous. To go down in history as a brilliant inventor, you need to be a ruthless magpie with messianic tendencies.
Mythmakers have no place for modesty and nuance. They like firebrands. Mavericks. Lone wolves. It’s why Thomas Edison, who claimed to have invented practically everything, is a towering figure in American history while Matti Makkonen, who denied inventing anything, remains unknown to the general public.
Ironically, Edison never filed a patent for his most authentic innovation: the large-scale experimental laboratory. Menlo Park was the first lab of its kind, staffed with highly trained scientific researchers capable of turning their paymaster’s sketches into reality. The self-styled lone inventor was a pioneer of precisely the spirit of collaboration to which Makkonen (and most sane engineers) subscribed. The difference is that, for Edison, collaboration finished at the lab door; the plaudits and paydays were for him and him alone.
Makkonen was 100% correct to deny ‘inventing’ SMS. He rightly points to Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert, who developed the 160 character protocol, and to Nokia, who created the first text message-enabled cellphone. On the few occasions he spoke to the press, Makkonen consistently deflected attention away from himself and onto the wider mobile industry. For that, we salute him. We can only hope history puts him on a higher pedestal than he would have countenanced – but it seems unlikely.
Changing the world with a brilliant idea won’t make you rich and famous. To go down in history as a brilliant inventor, you need to be a ruthless magpie with messianic tendencies and a knack for PR.