“The radio, the telephone, Facebook—each of these inventions changed the world. Each of them scared the heck out of an older generation. And each of them was invented by people who were in their 20s.” Daniel H. Wilson, author of Robopocalypse, in the Wall Street Journal, June 11th 2011.
Now wait a minute.
Radio: was it invented by David E. Hughes, by Oliver Lodge, by Heinrich Hertz, by Édouard Branly, or by Guglielmi Marconi? We could argue about that, but not about the following: Hughes was in his late 40s when he played around with radio wave transmission and detection; Lodge was in his early 40s when he demonstrated radio’s potential for communication; Branly was about 40 when he started work on the Coherer. Hertz was admittedly not quite 30 when he verified electromagnetic theory but, oddly, he saw no other use in his experimental apparatus. Well, to be an inventor, you have to be trying to invent something, right? It was Marconi, in his early 20s, who made longer-distance radio telegraphy practical, but he was standing on the shoulders of giants (including Augusto Righi, under whom Marconi learned the relevant physics about Hertz’s work) to reach high enough get all the theoretical and technical components in place. Yes, that’s right: Marconi invented nothing in making radio work, he just doggedly assembled stuff and tried it out.
The telephone: was it invented by Innocenzo Manzetti, by Antonio Meucci, by Johann Philipp Reis, by Elisha Gray, or by Alexander Graham Bell? We could argue about that, but not about the following: Manzetti was in his late 30s before reporting any success (if you can call it that — vowels only?); Meucci was in his late 40s when he got some sort of intercom system working in his house; Elisha Gray was 39 when he got into that still-disputed patent race with Bell, and Bell used Gray’s liquid-receiver techniques to demonstrate clear-speech telephony in 1876, when he had a few months to go before turning 30. Reis? Well, OK, in his mid-20s. But he got nowhere.
So who invented social networking websites? Obviously it wasn’t anybody at Facebook, which has left several predecessors in the dust. A likely candidate is Andrew Weinreich, who founded SixDegrees.com in the mid-90s (prematurely, by his own admission) and who is named first (of 13 co-inventors) in a patent assigned to that company. From what little I can put together about Andrew’s life, he was perhaps 26 or 27 when he started SixDegrees.com. There you have it: a blazing young genius.
The first question you should really ask, however: is web-based social networking actually much of an invention? Is there much about it that wasn’t blindingly obvious, simply waiting for enough iterations of Moore’s Law to become practical? (If SixDegrees.com had an Achilles Heel, it was that the digital camera was not yet ubiquitous.) Every patent is supposed to justify an inventive step in terms of what other patents do not cover. The prior art discussion in the SixDegrees patent filing is desperately brief: it only gestures vaguely at a free e-mail service of the time, noting its shortcomings. Apparently what is claimed is a database of people who negotiate direct links with each other bilaterally. Perhaps the obviousness of that idea is 20-20 hindsight. Clever, yes. Inventive genius? Hm.
Notably, Weinreich had no particular tech chops — he’d only had a few years of experience in financial analysis and in law. Marconi might not have truly invented radio, but he was elbows-deep in technology. Six Degrees foundered in part because of the walloping amounts of money it paid to other companies to develop its website.