"Credit: Recognition for an act, ability, or job well done."
- American Heritage Dictionary
As you already know, this summer's hottest marketing ploy originated with General Motors, spread to other automakers and is spilling over across the country. What was the GM secret? That generous employee discount they offered to all their customers whether they worked for the company or not.
Great work, GM, but I wonder: who got the credit for that phenomenal idea? My guess is that it went to the marketing department or someone higher up. But what about the person - probably a low-rung, recent grad with a creative, advertising bent - who thought up that commercial where a lazy job applicant tries to orchestrate the conditions of his employment: "I don't do the early wake-up thing... I'm not much good before noon, etc." Finally, the unimpressed prospective employer asks, "Do you want to work here?" and the truth comes out.
"No, but I'd like that employee discount when I buy my next car."
In the end everyone is happy: The company won't have a dud on its hands, and the late-sleeper won't have to go to work each day until his body alarm goes off or the first car payment is due.
So, did GM give the little guy with the big advertising idea part of that employee-discount windfall - or at least a new car?
Unsung heroes litter the landscape even when the public is ecstatic about what they've done. For example I think of Eli Whitney, the man history credits with inventing the cotton gin, but who hardly received any accolades at the time, or made a dime on the little machine that started the cotton boom in the South two centuries ago.
Whitney, a late 18th-century Yale graduate, came to Savannah to tutor the children of a wealthy planter. But shortly after his arrival the job fell through. Fortunately, on his journey from Connecticut to Georgia he had met Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene, who offered him a room in her home until he could find other work. While at Greene's home, Whitney demonstrated his mechanical ability by building her an embroidery frame. The grateful lady then asked if he could invent a machine to remove the sticky seeds from cotton so the slow, painful process wouldn't have to be done by hand.
It took Whitney only a few days to make his engine - or "gin" - which by the next year made it possible for two people to clean more cotton in one day than 100 people could accomplish by hand. Before long, rather than the 200,000 pounds of cotton sold in all of 1791, the South was exporting 41 million pounds of cotton a year. Cotton became the basis of the Southern economy until the Civil War.
But Whitney shared little of his gin's fame. Although he had patented his invention, early American patent rules were poorly written and his simple machine was too easy to copy. And copy they did. When Whitney tried to sue or to renew his patent under better terms, he not only lost every lawsuit but also became an object of derision, even being accused of stealing the invention in the first place.
hitney returned to Connecticut and turned his attention to other inventions from which he earned a modest income. Later, when his bitterness abated, he was able to take pride in "bringing great riches to the South," even if he did not reap those riches himself. As he confided to his friend and fellow-inventor, Robert Fulton: "If my invention had been less valuable and used by only a small portion of the community, I might have been more respected and my rights more honored."
Not an uncommon story about many a common man or woman who make great contributions to society even if the credit eludes them.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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