Wright Brothers, Santos Dumont and the mobile phone

By on ago 15, 2016 in Tecs |

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[veja o original em português]

The 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro has revived the discussion (at least in Brazil) about the invention of the airplane. Depending on the criteria you use, you can choose if it was the Americans or the Brazilian. But this controversy involves a theme even deeper, which is the way Americans and Europeans treat their inventions. I said “European” because Santos Dumont was born in Brazil, but was educated in France. He developed his aeronautical research under the influence of the European scientific environment.

In a simplified way, I can say that Americans treat their inventions with the vision “I made it, and I want to make money selling it.” Obviously the Europeans also want to make money, but always with a real benefit to the community in general. Something like “I made it, and I want to earn money by sharing it.”

These two ways of thinking can be observed in the invention of the airplane. While the Wright Brothers were concerned to keep their experiences and research a secret, while trying to sell the patent of the aircraft for the US Army, Santos Dumont tried to make public demonstrations. He was aware of the difficulty that was to pilot the 14 Bis so he created a “popular model”, the Demoiselle, and shared the project with the public.

This trend can be observed in many other inventions and projects now widely used:

One of the best examples of this collaborative vision is in mobile telephony. As a commercial service, the mobile phone has emerged in the United States. After the success of the first generation, several companies began to compete for the standard definition of second generation. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, organizations of various countries begun to work together, aware that it would be unreasonable that each have its own standards. The “Group Special Mobile – GSM,” was created and defines the standards that are now being used throughout the entire world, including the United States.

This group now is the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project). There are dozens of working groups involving hundreds of companies, generating all the specifications that make possible for cell phones of any brand to work on virtually any cellular network in the world. Operators buy the equipment knowing that it will interoperate properly with each other and with any mobile phone that has been developed under this standard. And the specifications are all published on the 3GPP website.

The result can be seen in companies that are in the multi-billion dollar infrastructure cellular networks market: the biggest names in the market today are Nokia (Finland), Ericsson (Sweden), Huawei (China) and ZTE (China). The last big American company -Lucent – merged with Alcatel (France) in 2006 and was absorbed by Nokia in April 2015.

So today we have in this market only two Nordic and two Chinese companies.

Do we have something to learn from this?


About the discussion over the invention of the airplane, I suggest the excerpt of the Santos Dumont book, O que eu vi e o que nós veremos (What I see and what we will see), in Portuguese (1918)