Who Gets the Credit?

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov. 1994

Often when I read in some magazine or newspaper about some new whizbang product I wonder where it came from. I mean where it really came from. After a lot of years working within the engineering system I still don't understand where things come from, or who should get the credit for them. Periodically this mystery bothers me, such as when I am asked to consider nominees for some engineering award.

The model of engineering life that I learned in school was a simple one. An engineer is working at his desk when suddenly a bolt of pure inspiration strikes from the sky. "Eureka!" he cries, grabbing a pen to begin the writing of a seminal paper in the new field. The patent is granted by return mail, and a special issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE has his picture on the cover. Companies race to produce the widget described in his paper, and within months he is being interviewed by Robin Leach for "Lives of the Rich and Famous." He lives happily ever after.

Somehow things don't work that way in what is euphemistically called real life. In case you haven't noticed, everything is actually quite murky, beginning with the "Eureka" part right through the "happily ever after" part. Nevertheless, even though we know better, we seek simple scenarios, we crave individual heroes, and we believe that the rewards should go to the creator of the intellectual idea. To say that some great invention coalesced out of primordial soup through a random instantiation of chaos theory is unappealing. I wouldn't say that myself in public, but sometimes late at night I wonder. This primordial soup is really pretty powerful stuff.

There is a new house being built next door to mine. When I go home at night I can see the progress that has been made during the day by the carpenters. I wish that progress was as visible in our profession, but as I review my own day's work I am unable to visualize any edifice that I have left behind as a result of my efforts. Instead I have the abstract sense of having contributed to that primordial soup that hangs in the air in the world of engineering, out of which will condense great things, but ones for which I will feel little personal responsibility.

For example, the other day I was reading a government report, and I happened upon some familiar phraseology. This was not a great new concept, but simply a nice way of looking at and thinking about a particular technology. I recently had read a similar exposition in one or two other places. The reason for mentioning this is that secretly I believe that I actually originated this particular description myself in some talks that I gave and some committees that I worked with. Somehow it got assimilated into the current culture and became part of what is now considered "conventional wisdom." That is as close as I can come to seeing a new floor arising from a pile of lumber. Pretty pathetic, isn't it?

As tenuous as this connection between myself and sweeping progress may already be, it weakens on closer examination. You see, I'm not really sure that I started out this particular thought process. Maybe I actually heard the idea somewhere else, and only passed it on. Perhaps I was only an amplifier within the soup. And after all, we are not talking about a great new idea, but only a way of describing something. Yet it is all a part of the process of socialization and consensus building that in the end could lead to world change.

There are a lot of us engineers out there, stirring the soup and bubbling within the soup. Then when something definable and significant coalesces from the soup, we later seek to ascribe credit, because that is the way we are. But deciding the credit for something is an interesting question that we seldom probe deeply. After all, no one wants to credit the soup. "Who published the first paper?" we ask.

Award committees work to find the author of the first paper, and that author is canonized as the "father" of whatever it is. Other award committees take note, and the author begins to travel up the chain of awards, as his or her connection with the achievement becomes increasingly legitimized. The soup is forgotten.

The problem is, I know of a number of instances where the people who actually did whatever it was -- built the widget, commercialized the process, etc. -- were totally unaware of the obscure paper written by the person who subsequently became canonized. "See here," we say, pointing at the mathematics in the faded journal. "Your widget is implicit in these equations." The entrepreneur only raises his eyebrows in puzzlement. The issue is whether or not Leonardo da Vinci should get credit for the invention of the submarine. After all, he published.

Who gets the credit is one issue of burning interest to engineers; the other is who gets the wealth. In this regard, one quite famous engineer was relating the story of his own success. He said that he sometimes hosts young engineering graduates at his mansion in Southern California. As he sees them staring at the opulence, he realizes that they are making the connection between his well known invention and his obvious wealth. He feels it necessary to caution them. "My invention of (widget) didn't get me this house," he tells them. "It was all the sales calls that I made."

Somehow I don't think that the "sales calls" bit is what the graduates want to hear. They want to cling to the belief that there is a rightness about the universe that will automatically reward the creator of the intellectual idea behind a technological advance. Alas, it is not so -- nor is it clear on reflection that this is the way the world should work. In many cases the reward, and perhaps even the credit, should go instead to the people who champion the idea, who take the risk and put in the sweat to make it happen. Unfortunately, this thought is unpleasant. Like crediting the soup for the original invention, it doesn't fit with our engineering model of the world.

So in some abstract sense when I read about a new widget, I feel partly responsible. Like you, I am a part of the soup from which it came. All the same, it would be nice to have the credit, and nicer still to have the reward!

Robert W. Lucky