April 23, 2022 by libroshombre
You won’t find me arguing with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that “One must be an inventor to read well. There is then creative reading as well as creative writing,” but it led me to consider the word “inventor” and how it differs from “scientist.” It arose while reading Richard Nordquist’s online article, “Five Theories of the Origin of Languages,” about who created the first language and how. It’s baffled linguists for centuries, and the leading theories – known as Bow-Wow, Ding-Dong, La-La, Pooh-Pooh, and Yo-He-Ho – all contain stumbling blocks. Take the Bow-Wow theory that holds that “our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them”; its flaw is that “relatively few words are onomatopoeic and these words vary from one language to another. For instance, a dog’s bark is heard as ‘au au’ in Brazil, ‘ham ham’ in Albania, and ‘wang wang’ in China.”
The Pooh-Pooh theory is that the first words were “interjections – spontaneous cries of pain (‘Ouch!’), surprise (‘Oh!’), and other emotions (‘Yabba-dabba-do),” but “no language contains very many interjections.” The Yo-He-Ho theory claims speech evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labor, but that “doesn’t go very far in explaining where words came from.” The La-La supporters believe language sprang from “sounds associated with love, play, and (especially) song” but that doesn’t account for the “gap between the emotional and rational aspects of speech.”
Invention historians are now a step closer to learning who invented pants, according to “The World’s Oldest Pants Are a 3,000-Year-Old Engineering Marvel,” an online article by Kiona N. Smith.” She wrote that the pants in question belonged to a Western Chinese warrior (known as the Turfan Man) around 1200 BCE, and “ancient weavers combined four different techniques to create a garment especially engineered for fighting on horseback, with flexibility in some places and sturdiness in others.” This was achieved by using “different weaving techniques to produce fabric with specific properties in certain areas, despite weaving the whole garment out of the same spun wool fiber … Most of the pants are woven in what’s called twill, which you might recognize if you’ve ever put on a pair of jeans … Twill makes a diagonally ribbed, heavy fabric that’s also stretchier than the original wool thread … the ancient weaver made the crotch piece of the pants wider at the center than the ends, so the piece of fabric could bunch up or stretch in the middle to give the wearer more flexibility where it really counted … At the knees, the ancient weaver switched to a different weaving method, called tapestry weaving, which produces a less flexible but thicker, sturdier fabric. At the waist, a third weaving method provided a thick waistband to help hold the pants in place.” Most impressively, “all of those components were woven as a single piece; there’s no evidence of any of the fabric having been cut.”
Creating those britches took considerable thought and skill, but it was more invention than science. Christian Fisher writes in “What’s the Difference Between an Inventor and a Scientist,” an online article, that, technically speaking, “The difference between an inventor and a scientist is mainly the results they each produce. Inventing requires patenting while making a scientific discovery does not … As a scientist, you can work your entire career without patenting anything, but you aren’t legally considered an inventor without having your name on at least one patent at some point in your career.” However, “Many scientists become inventors — especially when their research on a particular subject leads to an idea for a technology that can put what is being studied into practical use.” Determining the first inventor is as impossible as knowing who invented language, but figuring out the first scientist should be doable, right? Better think again.
The term “scientist” was coined in 1834 by William Whewell, a Cambridge University historian-philosopher, “to describe someone who studies the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” Based on that definition some put forward the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 624 BCE) but he’s as apocryphal as Homer. Other old Greeks have been suggested, like Euclid and Socrates but while they thought great thoughts, they did little experimental testing of their ideas. Many contend the first scientist was Ibn al-Haytham who lived in today’s Iraq (965-1039 CE) and invented the pin-hole camera, discovered the laws of refraction, and studied rainbows. However, mysticism permeated his work and there are doubts over how scientific his methods actually were.
In “Who Was the First Scientist,” a HowStuffWorks.com article, William Harris wrote that William Gilbert, “a rather obscure figure in the history of science, and Galileo Galilei’s slightly older contemporary … had the earlier birth date and, chronologically speaking at least, deserves the title of first scientist.” He was the physician to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, but in his spare time he coined the word “electricity” and studied magnetism. “It was Gilbert’s investigations into the nature of magnetism, however, that may make him the first modern scientist.” In 1600 he published “On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet of the Earth,” “the first significant book about physical science published in England. In the book’s preface, Gilbert described the need for ‘sure experiments and demonstrated arguments’ instead of ‘conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators.’ He also discussed the need to conduct experiments ‘carefully, skillfully and deftly, not heedlessly and bunglingly.’”
Gilbert’s work profoundly influenced that of Galileo, who “proclaimed Gilbert to be the founder of the scientific method. This endorsement alone may be enough to substantiate the claim that William Gilbert was the first modern scientist.” But the line between scientist and inventor can be blurred, as in the case of the invention of the WorldCat, “a union catalog (“A union catalog is a combined library catalog describing the collections of a number of libraries”) that includes “the collections of tens of thousands of institutions (mostly libraries), in many countries,” according to Wikipedia. WorldCat was an offspring of OCLC, which began as a consortium of Ohio libraries and evolved in 1967 into the Online Computer Library Council under the leadership of a legendary librarian named Frederick Gridley Kilgour.
Kilgour met his wife in the Harvard Library where he worked, and went on to become the Director of Yale’s medical library. In between he served in the Naval Reserve in WWII and was chairman of the U.S. Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications, a job well-suited to a librarian’s skillset. According to Wikipedia, this group “developed a system for obtaining publications from enemy and enemy-occupied areas. This organization of 150 persons in outposts around the world microfilmed newspapers and other printed information items and sent them back to Washington, DC. An example of the kind of intelligence gathered was the Japanese ‘News for Sailors’ reports that listed new minefields. These reports were sent from Washington, D.C. directly to Pearl Harbor and U.S. submarines in the Western Pacific.”
His great accomplishment was OCLC and WorldCat, which provides free cataloging information to libraries worldwide about which of them owns what books, thereby enabling the Interlibrary Loan system for sharing resources. WorldCat’s how I found that UAF’s Rasmuson Library owns a copy of Gilbert’s “On Magnets” and can rest assured that like Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”