Simultaneous Discoveries in History: Would You Be Irate if Someone Acted on Your Idea?

Savvy History: Writer – Educator – Musician

“Rather than being the products of the individual mind, multiples (aka - simultaneous discoveries) are said to prove that creative ideas are the effects of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. At a specific instant in the history of a domain, the time becomes ripe for a given idea. The idea is “in the air” for anyone to pick, making its inception inevitable.”

- Dean Keith Simonton, creativity researcher

Have you ever heard of Elisha Gray? He showed up at the patent office two hours after Alexander Graham Bell to pursue a patent for the same invention. Today’s post is packed full of similar tales.

Lately on the blog I’ve been discussing various ways to narrow in on a decision when your head is overwhelmed with options. One useful idea is to act on the activity that would make all of your other goals fall into place (if the activity actually succeeded). This week, let’s discuss how anger, competition, and even jealousy can work in your favor. Of course, we’ll keep it light using insights from stories in history.

A Story For the Perfectionistic

Most of us want credit for our creations when they are incredibly original or insightful. However, history is full of stories about serendipitous discoveries where only one person became recognized for the revelation - mostly because of a few factors. If you feel on the edge of a breakthrough, it’s important to understand what these differentiating factors are. Not waiting for “everything to be in place” before you act is one of them. 

For example, let’s feel eternally sorry for perfectionist William Lassell. Early one night, he discovered the dark inner “C ring” of Saturn. He spent the rest of the night confirming his observation only to read the next day about another scientist who made the same timely discovery. Who received credit in astronomy books? The less perfectionist George Bond who ran off to tell the newspaper. 

A Story Arguing For Both Depth and Action

If you have multiple ideas brewing and little time to act on them, it may be worth asking what idea you could come across in the wild that would make you insanely nervous you were about to be beaten to the punch.

Consider Darwin when he came across the work of Alfred Wallace.

"I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters.” - Charles Darwin 

After discovering the work of Wallace, Darwin’s friend told him not to sit any longer on his theory. (Darwin had worked two decades on The Origin of Species knowing he would be severely ridiculed if he presented anything below a perfected and incredibly detailed account.) 

We all know who got the resounding credit in this case, with Wallace himself acknowledging why…

“I have not the love of work, experiment, and detail that was so pre-eminent in Darwin, and about which anything I could have written would never have convinced the world.” - Alfred Wallace

A Story For Possessive Little Weirdos

Who invented calculus? Well, Sir Isaac Newton wants you to think it was him and definitely not Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Who??? Exactly.) 

“Newton was, apparently, pathologically averse to controversy. He really didn’t like to be involved in controversy. And because of his aversion to controversy, he was involved in probably the biggest controversy in the history of mathematics about a discovery in mathematics.”

The above quote came from this article, which explains how Newton tried to be “first to calculus” by sending a letter to Leibniz about ideas Leibniz already knew, in an attempt to historically document that he (Isaac) supposedly gave Leibniz the ideas. 

It gets weirder. A special commission was formed in London to sentence Leibniz with plagiarism. And who wrote the draft for the commission report? The president - Newton. 

All this did was cause a lot of drama in Britain. People felt like they had to choose sides - placing focus in the wrong area and arguably slowing down progress in mathematics. (I think we can all agree Newton didn’t have to do this to cement his place in history. He had enough going for him.)

Simultaneous Discoveries Continued…

1822: J. Goss and A. Seton (the segregation of pea hybrids).

1865: Mendel (genetic laws). 1900: Correns, Tschermak, and Vries. (The zeitgeist was clearly not ready for mover and shaker Mendel.)

1865: F. Schweigger-Seidel and A. von la Valette St. George (the idea of a single cell containing cytoplasm and a nucleus). 

1875: Flemming, 1876: Beneden (centrosome in the ovum). 

1884-1885: Strasburger, Kolliker, Hertwig, and A. Weismann (inheritance based on cell’s nucleus). 

1887: Benden and T. Boveri (mitosis doesn’t destroy centrosome).

1890: L. Guignard and T. Boveri (maternal and paternal chromosomes are contributed equally at fertilization). 

1899: Strasburger and L. Cuenot (sex is controlled by cells and not be environment).

1899: Korchinsky, 1901: de Vries (mutations)

1946: Purcell, Pound, and Torey at Harvard vs. Hansen, Packard and Block at Stanford (nuclear magnetic resonance).

The Pelton water wheel, the periodic law of elements, Einstein vs. Hilbert regarding the general theory of relativity, the James-Lange theory of emotion (splitting the credit - imagine that!), the Bone (aka fossil) Wars of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles - the list goes on.

Simultaneous discoveries seem to be inevitable. And one study predicts 20% of them happen within a year of eachother. 

A Side Note For the Arts

Maybe you noticed how most of the above stories revolve around scientists. For some creatives, competition is most brutal in fields where people are told they should assume they will make little to no money. (Cough cough. The arts, music, design, cooking, etc.) 

Keep in mind, knowledge in science accumulates in a more objective way than subjective movements in the arts. It’s important to break yourself free from competitive trains of thought while sharing the process of your work online.

A different eventual group of scientists would have discovered DNA, but no one could have replaced Shakespeare, Beethovan, or Picasso - no matter how much they revealed their creative process. 

Is There a “Discovery” By Someone Else That Would Make You Angry?

Bottomline - maybe you’re at a point in life where you’re not jealous of someone making $200,000+ a year if the way they make it seems boring.

However, you have a few intriguing ideas. And if you came across them out in the wild? Or someone else was suddenly interviewed about them on a podcast? You would be irate at yourself for not acting. This realization is very clarifying - for scientists and artists alike. 

What do you think about using this method to choose where to go next with projects?

Is the background threat of being beaten to your idea helpful?

Can it help you prioritize your work? Also, what do you think of these stories from the past?

Factual information for today's post came from this book by Dean Keith Simonton (unless otherwise noted).

Mr. Fate
Very well researched (and interesting) Michelle, so thank you. As a tool for creative prioritization, I think this ‘Get it out there 1st’ technique could be useful. Even if it’s artificially created – meaning the idea like a song, book, or art pics might already be out there (as of course they are), but thinking and then acting as they aren’t and using that as motivation. Kinda like ‘the artificial scarcity’ concept with money – which alters one’s behavior (irrespective of whether there is no real scarcity). If that makes any sense.

Savvy History
I definitely procrastinate my creative ideas, so I think I wrote this for myself to remember someone else is probably close to offering what I offer. Nothing new under the sun! I’m not big on scarcity, but I agree – it has its place. We need limits and we need restrictions sometimes in order to become all we can. Thanks for reading!