Discoveries are Often Discovered Independently By Multiple People.

Discoveries and inventions are often made independently, and more or less simultaneously, by multiple people.

What is Multiple Discovery (Simultaneous Discovery)?

Multiple discovery is the hypothesis that explains that discoveries and inventions are often made independently, and more or less simultaneously, by multiple people. Multiple discovery may also be referred to as “simultaneous discovery”, “multiple invention”, or “simultaneous invention” depending on context or preference. [1]

Typically, only the most famous of inventors or discoverers are credited. In many cases only one of many discoverers or inventors is credited, due to this, understanding the concept of multiple discovery is important to any historian. Expanding on this is the concept that humans can’t have new ideas, and the concept of the lone genius. None of this is to say that a single person is erroneously credited in some cases, it is to say close examination is often needed to find the truth.

Inventions that Shook the World. Many of the discoveries featured in this series (which you should go an watch on Hulu if you can) are subject to “multiple discovery theory”, as they were simultaneously discovered by more than one person at the same time.

TIP: Discovery is different the invention, but both apply to multiple discovery. Something like fire is “discovered”, something like the telescope is “invented”. In both cases it is typically a previous invention or discovery which enables the next discovery or invention to be made. This helps explain multiple discovery and multiple invention.

Is Multiple Discovery a Fact?

Multiple discovery is a theory (or more technically hypothesis) and not a proven fact or truism that applies to every situation. We can find evidence of multiple discovery in a large number of the world’s most important inventions and discoveries, and the term “multiple discovery” is just a way of describing that phenomena.

The myth of the single inventor can be dangerous, but the myth that individuals can’t be lone geniuses is important too. We have to celebrate our hero’s without forgetting that there are no new ideas and innovation is a group effort. Humans are social beings. Keep in mind this video is making a point, this doesn’t mean no-one should be credited where credit is due. It’s just a reminder life is a team effort.

Who Gets the Credit in Multiple Discovery?

Typically, only the most famous of the inventors or discoverers gets the credit for inventions and discoveries, even if there was more than one inventor or discoverer. This can be partly explained by looking at other similar phenomena such as the “Matthew Effect” (coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton) which in overly-simple terms says, “the rich get richer”.[1]

Multiple discovery also relates back to Scientometrics (coined by Derek J. de Solla Price and Eugene Garfield) which shows “works and authors that get cited more, get exponentially cited more”. In other words, the most famous and important of people tend to get credited or cited more than others. Each time they or their works are cited, their work is more likely to be cited again.[2]

TIP: The “Matilda effect,” a term named after the abolitionist Matilda Gage is the phenomenon that women’s accomplishments tend to be co-opted, stolen, or overshadowed by those of male peers. Both Nettie Stevens and Ada Lovelace are cases where both the Matthew effect and Matilda effect are in play… yet they are also stories where the male counterpart deserves credit. Often the main theme is a matter of simultaneous discovery while sub-themes are related to “who gets the credit”.

Other Reasons We Credit Only the Most Famous People

Aside from phenomena relating to money, influence, and citation, credit likely goes to specific individuals because it is more appealing to tell a story about the well-known Thomas Edison than Ted the new-hire in Edison’s lab. Surely, it’s easier to credit Benjamin Franklin with the bifocal than it is a lens maker who Franklin possibly met once, or who possibly worked in relative obscurity. It is certainly more attractive to credit Galileo Galilei with the telescope than Hans Lippershey the lens maker, we have less chance of losing the attention of the audience when we play up Galilei and downplay Hans the lens maker smart enough to patent the telescope.

Being the one to get credit for an invention can also be due to the fact that those with more influence tend to be able to publicize their discoveries and inventions. So not only do those with more influence get noticed more, they also can make themselves be noticed more (Edison was good at this for instance).

Perhaps, most importantly, we tend to retain written documents from important people, thus we are more likely to find evidence of invention if its inventor was important.

The phenomena of attribution could also simply be caused by people wanting to attribute great inventions and discoveries to great people, not just for stories told to others, but as an advent of their own romanticizing of the person.

Issues of crediting aside, to do justice to any discovery or invention we need to take a critical look at the discoveries and inventions leading up to it, and make sure not to forget some of the often forgotten faces. You never know where a great story his hiding.

FACT: We love heroes, but consider from what we know Edison was less an inventor and more an ideas-man and businessman. “Edison” was a team of inventors whose work he patented and funded (this team included the actual inventor Tesla at one point). Ultimately, Edison’s own pockets weren’t deep enough, so J P Morgan became his main source of funding for some of his biggest work. Morgan also funded Tesla. Just who is it that deserves credit? The answer is likely all of them (including Edison’s team), they changed the world, but the pressure is always on to credit a single inventor.

Discoveries are Often Discovered Independently By Multiple People


  1. Multiple Discovery“. Retrieved Oct 30, 2015.
  2. Matthew Effect“. Retrieved Oct 30, 2015.


Typically, there is not one inventor or discoverer. It is more common that multiple different people invent or discover something (or at least contribute to the discovery or invention) in or around the same time. This isn’t always true, but important to consider as history will often credit only the most important and famous of the “multiple discoverers”.

"Discoveries are Often Discovered Independently By Multiple People" is tagged with: Collective Intelligence, Derek de Sola Price, Simultaneous Discovery, Theories

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