Sivowitch Law of Firsts

Eliot Sivowitch

Elliot Sivowitch in the electricity collections, around 1970. Photo courtesy of Hal Wallace, NMAH.

The invention process is seldom straightforward. People always seem to want to know who invented something first, but we don’t often have such definitive answers. Elliot Sivowitch, one of my very favorite colleagues at the Museum, summed up the messiness of invention in his typically witty “Sivowitch Law of Firsts”:

 

 

Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third. Someone will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place. [1]

With great sadness, we learned today of Elliot’s passing. Hal Wallace, curator of the Museum’s electricity collections, wrote:

Elliot first came to work at the U.S. National Museum in 1959. He left to work at the Library of Congress for a year and returned to the Smithsonian in 1961, retiring in 2000. Elliot spent his career in the Electricity Collections as our expert on radio and television history. Since retirement he had continued in an emeritus capacity, working with researchers, answering public inquiries, and assisting museum staff in identifying and cataloging objects. During his long career he helped move the collections to the new National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) and brought in many significant additions of radio and television material. That our radio technology holdings and archives are among the finest in the world is due in no small measure to Elliot’s expertise.

Elliot earned a Master of Arts in history from Syracuse University in 1957 with his thesis, “A History of Radio Spectrum Allocation in the United States: 1912-1926.” He participated in exhibitions both large and small over the years: Information Age, Person To Person, Patent Controversies in the History of Radio, and Transistors at Fifty to name just a few. He influenced the work of a host of fellows and visiting scholars during his five decades of service to the museum. An amateur radio operator (K3RJA), he was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian HAM station, NN3SI. An excellent violinist, Elliot used that talent to give demonstrations of acoustical science to visitors. He was a member of the Audio Engineering Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Elliot’s friendly nature was as welcome as his expertise was invaluable.

I first met Elliot in the 1980s, about a dozen years before I came to the Smithsonian. I was doing research on the early history of television and remember very well how generous he was with his time and knowledge. Over the years, I learned to turn to Elliot not only when I needed help with research, but also when I just needed a good laugh. Elliot had the best giggle on earth—a surprising contrast to his deep radio-announcer’s voice. I already miss that giggle, and the amazing brain and kind soul behind it.

[1] Quoted in Ira Flatow, They All Laughed: From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives (New York: Harper, 1993), p. xv.

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