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Historians and sociologists have remarked the occurrence, in science, of "multiple independent discovery". Robert K. Merton defined such "multiples" as instances in which similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other.[1] "Sometimes," writes Merton, "the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make a new discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else has made years before."[2]

Commonly cited examples of multiple independent discovery are the 17th-century independent formulation of calculus by Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others, described by A. Rupert Hall;[3] the 18th-century discovery of oxygen by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier and others; and the theory of the evolution of species, independently advanced in the 19th century by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Multiple independent discovery, however, is not limited to such famous historic instances. Merton believed that it is multiple discoveries, rather than unique ones, that represent the common pattern in science.[4]

Merton contrasted a "multiple" with a "singleton"—a discovery that has been made uniquely by a single scientist or group of scientists working together.[5]

A distinction is drawn between a discovery and an invention, as discussed for example by Bolesław Prus.[6] However, discoveries and inventions are inextricably related, in that discoveries lead to inventions, and inventions facilitate discoveries; and since the same phenomenon of multiplicity occurs in relation to both discoveries and inventions, this article lists both multiple discoveries and multiple inventions.

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13th century CEEdit

14th centuryEdit

16th centuryEdit

17th centuryEdit

18th centuryEdit

19th centuryEdit

20th centuryEdit

21st centuryEdit


When the time is ripe for certain things, these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.

— Farkas Bolyai to his son János Bolyai, urging him to claim the invention of non-Euclidean geometry without delay,
quoted in Ming Li and Paul Vitanyi, An introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and Its Applications, 1st ed., 1993, p. 83.

[Y]ou do not [make a discovery] until a background knowledge is built up to a place where it's almost impossible not to see the new thing, and it often happens that the new step is done contemporaneously in two different places in the world, independently.

— a physicist Nobel laureate interviewed by Harriet Zuckerman, in Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, 1977, p. 204.

[A] man can no more be completely original [...] than a tree can grow out of air.

— George Bernard Shaw, preface to Major Barbara (1905).

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ Robert K. Merton (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press. p. 371. ISBN 978-0-226-52092-6.
  3. ^ A. Rupert Hall, Philosophers at War, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  4. ^ Robert K. Merton, "Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: a Chapter in the Sociology of Science", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 105: 470–86, 1961. Reprinted in Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 343–70.
  5. ^ Robert K. Merton, On Social Structure and Science, p. 307.
  6. ^ Bolesław Prus, O odkryciach i wynalazkach (On Discoveries and Inventions): A Public Lecture Delivered on 23 March 1873 by Aleksander Głowacki [Bolesław Prus], Passed by the [Russian] Censor (Warsaw, 21 April 1873), Warsaw, Printed by F. Krokoszyńska, 1873, p. 12.
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