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Stray sparks from the induction coil: The volta prize and the page patent

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1 Author(s)
Post, R.C. ; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

In 1864, following the recommendation of a committee of eminent French scientists, Emperor Napoleon III awarded "Le Prix Volta," 50 000 francs, to a Paris instrument maker, Heimich D. Ruhmkorff, for "l'invention de la bobine d'induction." When news of this reached Washington, Charles G. Page, a patent examiner, claimed to have anticipated Ruhmkorff's first coils by 13 years. Page was subsequently able to secure a special Act of Congress authorizing an extraordinary patent for the coil. While this patent was ostensibly designed simply as a formal tribute and to "vindicate our own nationality in the paths of science," Page's attorney, in league with the Western Union Company, began to press charges of infringement. Even though there is no evidence that Page conspired to exploit his "honorific" patent-indeed, he died shortly after it issued-many of his one-time partisans denounced it as "an outrage on the public." Controversy eventually subsided, and most authorities conceded that Page's priority claim was valid. Nevertheless, Page was virtually forgotten, while historians of science have continued to treat Ruhmkorff as a noteworthy figure on the basis of the recognition accorded him for his work on the coil. Yet, by standard criteria such as publication Ruhmkorff was not a scientist at all, whereas Page was a bona fide experimental physicist, a worthy peer of Joseph Henry. The story of the Volta Prize and the Page Patent, then, reveals something about scientific chauvinism, and about the capricious basis of scientific repute.

Published in:

Proceedings of the IEEE  (Volume:64 ,  Issue: 9 )