All In The Family
On a spring day two decades ago, I joined Nat C. Wyeth for lunch in the posh Brandywine Room of Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. A soft-spoken man in his mid-70s, Wyeth was a giant in the chemical industry for inventing the first recyclable plastic bottle for liquids under pressure out of PET, a polymer resin. As we sat down, I noticed that the white-haired DuPont chemist seemed to bask in the artwork that adorned the room’s oak-paneled walls—and I soon understood why.
We admired the luminous Island Funeral , painted by his father and family patriarch, the illustrator Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth. His brother Andrew’s muted landscapes of the Eleutherian Mills countryside, site of the DuPont family’s original gunpowder factories, hung nearby. We also saw original canvases painted by his sister Carolyn and Andrew’s son, James (Jamie). I wondered how the rest of the family viewed their non-artist relation, and whether they were as proud of him as he was of them.
While this amazing vein of artistic talent running through at least three generations of the Wyeth family is widely recognized, chemist Nat Wyeth’s presence among them is little known. In choosing engineering over art, Nat became the family maverick, the only non-artist among his siblings. By the age of three, he was already playing with gadgets. Following his uncle’s advice, Nat studied mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where he invented a 20-foot hydroplane boat that could reach 50 miles per hour. During his 40-year career at DuPont, Wyeth earned 25 patents, most notably the PET bottle. More than 10 billion PET bottles are manufactured annually.
Reportedly, his father accepted this career deviation with the comment, “An engineer is just as much an artist as a painter.” However, according to an authoritative biography, N.C. Wyeth routinely omitted Nat’s name from any account of the family’s history, so often that Nat became known only as “the Wyeth who doesn’t paint.”
Nat Wyeth had to cope not only with being outside the family’s artistic tradition, but also with a strained, and decidedly strange relationship with his father, who may have had an affair with Nat’s wife. Despite these familial difficulties, he never moved far from the Chadds Ford homestead and attempted to retain a close relationship with his father and artistic siblings.
I suspect that his lifelong familial immersion in the arts kindled his creative energies as an inventor. With its colorful and complex polymers, organic chemistry is one of the most artistic branches of chemical science. Recalling the moment of discovery, Wyeth would recall his discovery of the first successful PET bottle with pure aesthetic pleasure:
“I remember the mixture of expectation and depression I felt when we opened our molding machine. It was late in the evening, and there was little cross-light hitting the mold. After months of frustration, we had grown used to seeing blobs of resin caked on the mold, or crude shapes that looked nothing like a bottle. This time, at first glance, it looked as if the mold was empty. A closer look revealed something else—a crystal clear bottle. Since then, I have seen countless truly beautiful PET bottles. But none of them will ever be as memorable as the first.”
Nat’s career suggests that many inventors are really artists at heart. Different creative talents within a family can be mutually reinforcing. I believe that a family culture of creativity across a broad spectrum is extremely important in the nurturing of inventors.
This remarkable multi-generational display of Wyeth family talent also made me wonder if invention, too, can be handed down through generations, and about the relationship between technological and artistic invention. Artistic dynasties are far from rare. America’s Peale family rivaled the Wyeths in painterly output, while Europe has many examples, such as Brueghel the Elder and his son. Consider architects—Frank Lloyd Wright and son Lloyd Wright; Eliel and Earo Saarinen; Frederick Law Olmstead, Sr. and Jr.; musicians J.S. Bach and multiple sons; several Strauss family composers; Wynton Marsalis and family; scientists—Nobel laureate Curies, Bohrs, Braggs, the Kornbergs, and others. Even actors—the Barrymores, Redgraves, and Fondas—and sports starts—Major League Baseball players, such as outfielders Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey, Jr., and three generations of Andretti racecar drivers—for that matter.
Can the same thing be said of inventors? One might point to notable engineering families, such as the Roeblings of Brooklyn Bridge fame. The creator of Britain’s Great Western Railway, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was the son of engineer Marc Isambard Brunel, a prolific inventor as well as engineer. Yet an important distinction needs to be drawn between engineer and inventor: the former mainly solves technological problems, while the latter creates new things.
No obvious examples of inventor dynasties come to mind. No one to my knowledge has kept systematic track of inventors begetting inventors, the way the Nobel Foundation proudly records its second-generation laureates. If anything, we tend to assume that inventive talent is not inherited at all because of a popular stereotype of inventors as one-of-a-kind, sui generis types. They are portrayed rather as ultimate sports of nature. On the other hand, there are few Edisons, Bells, Morses, Lands, or Wozniaks. When invention fails to rise to this exalted level, it is generally deemed anonymous, as if it dropped from the sky. Who knows that the zipper, paper clip, ballpoint pen, or, for that matter, the PET bottle, had creators? Myths and oversights continue to influence not only public memory about inventions, but the way history is understood and written.
Should not inventive genius be passed along in families, just like other forms of creativity? Once I started looking in earnest, I found tantalizing indications that inventive talent does pass down through at least a second generation, although it usually goes unrecognized. I cannot really say whether such talent owes more to genes or environment. It is almost certainly some combination of both.
Consider the famous 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin, who came from an extended family that was famously rich in scientists, inventors, poets, and philosophers. Son of a physician, his paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a leading medical authority who was offered—and declined—the position of personal physician to George III. In addition, Erasmus was a popular poet and natural philosopher, whose poems anticipated evolution and inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He was also a prolific inventor. Charles’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of Wedgwood pottery and an inventor of ovens and revolutionary ceramic materials. Erasmus Darwin invented a horizontal windmill to power the Wedgwood factory; both Erasmus and Josiah were stalwarts of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the famed group of scientists and businessmen that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution.
Invention continued to follow Charles Darwin when he joined the second voyage of the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836, on which he made the observations that would lead to his theory of natural selection. Admiral Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle , brought aboard the latest inventions, including novel devices that measured ocean depth and wind speed. He invented the Fitzroy Barometer, which combined a standard mercury barometer along with a barometer, indicators of wind direction, and a guide to interpreting pressure changes. The simple mass-produced instrument enabled the mariner to make his own weather forecasts.
Thus, inventors and inventions surrounded Darwin throughout his life. When the Darwin and Wedgwood families merged they became a veritable breeding ground of innovation, yielding discoveries in science, art, and technology over at least three generations.
Darwin’s family history reinforces the hypothesis that science, invention, and art are simply disparate manifestations of the same creative energy. Tracking technological invention per se across generations has proven a more difficult task. Significant complicating factors more or less specific to invention can intervene or mask the inheritance.
First, invention arguably involves more social contingency than does science or even art or music. Unless an invention succeeds commercially, or in some other ways finds its social niche, it tends to vanish from memory and even from the historical record. In this respect, it is unlike a work of art, music, or science, where one can occasionally rummage through history’s dustbin to find previously neglected gems, which can be polished and presented anew. A scientific or artistic discovery can potentially count whether or not it received initial acceptance in society. Not so with invention, it seems. A noted inventor may produce inventive sons and daughters, but if the progeny fail to market their inventions, chances are their talents, however impressive, will go unrecognized.The Darwin-Wedgewood family demonstrates the affinity between technological and artistic creativity
Whether children follow in the footsteps of a mother or a father may be essentially unpredictable. But, clearly, family dynamics, both intra- and inter-generational, play a role in determining if inventive talent is going to wither or bloom. A range of psychological factors come into play: the clash of egos, parent-child and father-mother relationships, sibling rivalry, parental and family expectations, and different gender expectations. (How many female inventors are missing for this reason?) Of course, this is true for all creative types, but inventing families carry an extra burden, due to the added pressures of business and market forces. Disputes over invention are notoriously contentious, because they almost always involve money.
If the family dynamic encouraged invention among the Darwins, it had a negative effect within the household of Thomas Alva Edison, the iconic inventor of the phonograph and electric light bulb. He seems to have cast more shadow than light on his own family’s future. This great inventor had a difficult relationship with his sons by Mary Stilwell, his first wife.
Tom Jr., who dreamed of inventing, grew to resent his famous and intimidating father. Although he felt he could never please his celebrated father, he tried to market the “new improved, Edison Junior light bulb,” but mostly his investors wanted only to see the Edison name. Tom Sr.’s demand that he stop leveraging the family name led to a final break between father and son, who then turned to chorus girls and drink.
The other son from his first marriage, William Leslie, designed a spark plug that had “the full approval of my father, Thomas A. Edison.” Any hopes that William might inherit the family mantle never materialized because of his poor business skills. Adding to his sons’ problems, Edison stubbornly refused to take them into his business, convinced that helping them would only make them lazy.
His sons by his second wife, Mina Miller, proved a different story, largely due to her strong-willed intervention. Son Theodore showed great technical ability. After attending MIT, he joined his father at the Edison labs, rising to the position of technical director. He eventually established his own successful R&D firm, Calibron.
Attitudes toward education appear to have made the difference between the sons from Edison’s two marriages. Notoriously suspicious of book learning and academia, Edison ensured that the children of his first marriage received as little formal learning as possible. Mina saw to it that her sons, Charles and Theodore, received formal schooling. Both went to MIT and enjoyed far more satisfying professional careers than did their older half-brothers.
While Edison’s resistance to helping family members arguably stood in the way of his sons’ success, even thriving family businesses can pose hazards to young inventive talent. The entrepreneurial Kellogg family is a case in point. In the 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg was superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. A deeply religious man, he advocated the health ideas of his Seventh Day Adventist faith. Together with his brother, William Keith (W.K.) Kellogg, he invented special health breads for his patients.
According to an often-told tale, the brothers accidentally left the bread dough out one night. They tried rolling the stale dough the next day into bread loaves, but found that it flaked into small pieces. Rather than throwing the flakes away, John Harvey Kellogg fed them to his patients, who loved them. This marked the discovery of Toasted Wheat Flakes breakfast cereal. Such accidental invention by prepared minds is a well-recognized phenomenon. The brothers applied what they discovered by chance to corn and rice with continued success.
The Kellogg brothers eventually had a bitter falling out that led to nasty litigation. When they split, W.K. Kellogg took over the company, soon giving the world Kellogg’s Cornflakes . John Harvey Kellogg tried to start a rival firm, but could not compete. So the inventive spirit lived on, but only after the destruction of the fraternal partnership—hardly a passing of the torch.
W.K. Kellogg brought his son, John L., into the business. Although John showed some initial success as an inventor of new cereal processes, his father pushed him out of the company after he dared to buy an oat mill, an ill-advised move in a corn-, rice-, and wheat-based company. W.K. then tried to pass the business directly to his grandson, John Jr., when the boy was only 14, but eventually banished him as well, though the circumstances are not clear. We will never know what he might have accomplished. Reminiscent of the famed Edison ego, it has been said that there was no house or company big enough to hold two male Kelloggs.
As we have seen, the transfer of invention across succeeding generations involves myriad contingencies, not the least of which are intra- and cross-generational frictions. Both the Edisons and Kelloggs raised several would-be inventors, but only one of the offspring, Theodore Edison, was an unqualified success, thanks in large part to the efforts of his mother. Paternal sabotage helped do in all the other Edison and Kellogg inventors. Art, science, and invention interacted synergistically among the Darwin-Wedgwoods. But, in the case of Nat Wyeth, the family bent for painting and music—a Wyeth was expected to be an artist—worked both for and against the aspirations of its sole inventor.
An overly controlling parent can easily undermine inventive children, who need space to blossom. Later-born children, who tend to rebel from parental authority, benefit most from support structures external to the family framework. The younger Edisons, from the inventor’s second family, obtained this outside support in universities, such as MIT. Nat Wyeth found a creative foothold and perhaps safe harbor from family turmoil at DuPont.
In sum, inventors are not only born but also made, and, as illustrated by the examples given, family dynamics can make or break a future inventor. My encounter with Nat Wyeth showed that an aspiring inventor can not only survive but thrive once he learns to navigate the turbulent waters of a creative family. These few illustrative examples suggest some of the barrier to cross-generational invention. I have a strong suspicion that, absent such hurdles, invention can be, and is, successfully passed down.
Perhaps future research into U.S. patent records will uncover some especially productive familial lines, rescuing invention from complete anonymity. Only then will history catch up with the actual record, and perhaps, eventually, the public with history. The Nat I encountered in Wilmington may then be remembered not as the Wyeth who doesn’t paint, but as the Wyeth who invents.