Rickard's Law of Eponymy

Feb 10, 2022

Spend enough time looking at scientific discoveries and you'll realize that they are rarely named after the scientists who originally discovered them. The phenomenon is called Stigler's law of eponymy. To be consistent with his own law, Stigler acknowledged that economist Robert Merton was the "discoverer" of Stigler's law. To be even more consistent with the law, I've written it down and coined it as my own.

There's a great quote that's attributed to Mark Twain, although there's no evidence that he actually said this.

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Here are some examples of Stigler's law.

  • Venn Diagrams, named after John Venn (1880s), but first introduced by Euler in 1768.
  • The Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by BioNTech, a smaller biotech company which partnered with Pfizer for clinical trials and distribution.
  • Newton's first and second laws of mechanics were already formulated by other physicists like Galileo.
  • Linus's Law, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow", named after Linus Torvalds, founder of Linux. Eric S. Raymond first coined the term.
  • Currying, named after Haskell Curry, originally discovered by Moses Schonfinkel.
  • Benford's law, named after physicist Frank Benford (1938), originally stated by Simon Newcomb (1881).
  • Goodhart's law, "when a measure become a target, it ceases to be a good measure", named after Charles Goodhart, originally stated by many others (Campbell's law).

My two other favorite quotes often misattributed to Mark Twain:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. (source)
Don't believe everything you read on the internet