For every brilliant innovator there’s a competitor ready to challenge him, and historically, that has spurred some memorable competitions. The story behind these power struggles is the premise of the series “American Genius,” which premieres on Nat Geo on June 1 with back-to-back episodes about computer pioneers Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and aviators Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers.
Mixing scripted re-enactments with archival footage and interviews with contemporary innovators like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, the series explores the often contentious competition between the fathers of invention, from electricity pioneers Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla to TV creators David Sarnoff and Philo Farnsworth and gunmakers Samuel Colt and Daniel Wesson.
We talked to producer Stephen David about what viewers can learn from these brilliant and fierce competitors.
MNN: What was the idea behind the series?
Stephen David: I’ve always been fascinated by how, throughout history, the personal characteristics of a single individual can have the potential to almost literally change the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of technological invention, where we see men like Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers or Robert Oppenheimer solving these seemingly insurmountable problems through a combination of genius and perseverance. But as I started learning more about each of these life-changing inventions — electrical currents, the airplane or the nuclear bomb — I quickly realized that these inventors were never working in a vacuum. They were self-driven, but even more so, they were driven by their competitors. So for every Edison, Wright brother or Oppenheimer, there’s a Nikola Tesla, Glenn Curtiss or Werner Heisenberg. And often, the latter names, though lesser known, are just as important.
What I found most fascinating about each of these rivalries are the incredible egos behind these incredible minds. These inventors were often keenly aware of their rivals, even if they never actually met face-to-face. What we saw most in our research was that it's not always who does it best. It's who does it first or who gets the credit for doing it first.
What will surprise people?
What I think people will find most surprising is the huge role that some of these lesser-known or forgotten inventors played in some of the greatest advancements in history. For example, everyone knows that the Wright brothers were “first in flight,” but what most people probably don’t know is that they also set back American aviation for decades with their aggressive patent lawsuits.
Glenn Curtiss was like this swashbuckling, good‑looking guy who was into motorcycles. He started innovating planes, and they kept suing him. And over the next 14 years, he got to the point where he made a plane that was so advanced it could land on ships and drop bombs. Meanwhile, the Wright Brothers still were just suing people and had basically the same plane as they had at Kitty Hawk. The contributions made by Glenn Curtiss, such as the aileron, were far more critical to the development of modern aviation. In fact, we still use Curtiss’ aileron today.
How do you define genius in the series?
One thing we definitely tried to stay away from in “American Genius” is the cliché of the inventor’s “Aha!” moment. The myth of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head is a great example. These eureka myths actually minimalize the incredible amount of work — and failures — that these geniuses had to go through in order to create something world changing. Thomas Edison (right) once said something about trying to solve the problem of the lightbulb that has really stuck with me: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” That’s not to say that these inventors weren’t incredibly gifted individuals, but it’s really the years of struggling and their ceaseless drive to achieve that makes them some of the most famous people in history.
Are there other rivalry stories you’d like to dramatize?
There are so many stories in the realm of invention that we didn’t get to tell, and that we’d love to explore in future seasons.
What do you hope viewers take away?
“American Genius” tells the story of these competitive inventors as a way to stress motivation and perseverance as key motivators toward success. I hope that in watching the series, our audience comes away with a greater understanding of some of the forgotten names that were absolutely critical to these great technological breakthroughs.
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