Who Was ‘First’ with a Big Idea? It’s Often Hard To Know
Thanks to the phenomenon of “multiples”
I recently wrote about the history of “pinch and zoom” — and how Apple didn’t really invent it. Apple executives love to claim they did; Steve Jobs even stood on stage and boasted “boy, have we patented it!”
But as I noted in my post, inventors had been working on pinch-and-zoom for decades before Apple glommed onto it. One of the people I cited who’d developed a form of pinch-and-zoom was Myron Kreuger, who back in 1983 had “pioneered the pinch gesture on his experimental Video Place system”.
But even Kreuger isn’t the whole story. After my post went up, I got emails, comments and DMs from folks saying hold up a minute — other people invented pinch and zoom, too. Kreuger shouldn’t get credit for being first!
The history of pinch and zoom is long, and it’s filled with inventors generating the idea over and over again. The designer Bill Buxton has a fantastic catalogue of people who worked on systems that could do “multitouch”, i.e. detecting more than one finger-press simultaneously, a linchpin technique for pinch-and-zoom. There are fully 50 projects on that list, stretching way back to 1972.
And here’s the thing: Some of those inventors had no idea that others were also working on multitouch. In other words, they independently co-invented the idea.
For example, Buxton was part of a group at the University of Toronto that built a multitouch tablet and publicly presented it in 1985. After their public presentation, Bob Boie at Bell Labs heard about it and contacted Buxton to talk about a multitouch project he too had created—and Boie had built his before Buxton’s. In other words, both groups hit upon the same concept, independent of each other, and initially unaware of each other, roughly around the same time as each other.
This, as it turns out, is a glimpse into why it can be so devilishly hard to determine who truly “invented” something.
It turns out people co-invent things all the time.
There’s even a name for this phenomenon: “Multiples”.