Letting yourself become consumed by priority disputes is one of the biggest mistakes that a scientist or inventor can make. While creators and discoverers should seek proper credit for their achievements, it’s important to recognize the most effective ways of securing credit, and to avoid getting caught up in prolonged public spats.
Many disputes arise when a scientist or inventor suggests an idea to someone who then builds on it, acquiring wealth and fame as a result. A good example is the 17th century argument between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton. Hooke protested that he was first to describe the forces that determine the orbital motion of planets and that Newton failed to recognize his contribution in his great book, Principia.
There is compelling evidence that Hooke was first to suggest the ideas, because Newton acknowledged the fact in private correspondence. However, it was Newton who produced and published a comprehensive theory, and Hooke freely admitted that Newton took the ideas much further than he had considered.
Hooke’s position was weak. The best he could have hoped for was an acknowledgment from Newton. However, Hooke was in some ways his own worst enemy, publicly and aggressively challenging some of Newton's other ideas. It’s understandable that Newton lost whatever sympathy he had for Hooke’s claim based on Hooke’s subsequent behavior.
The lesson of history is that it is not enough to be first to propose an idea. The greatest credit goes to those who conduct a thorough study and either publish their findings or produce an invention based on those findings. To wit, history rightly favors those who do something with ideas.
Hooke only made matters worse by continuing to argue his case. His lobbying efforts must have made colleagues uncomfortable—given that most probably wanted to maintain friendly relations with both men. Hooke was a prolific scientist; what he should have done was be sure to follow through the next time he had a good idea. (In fact, Hooke made a habit of jumping from one line of inquiry to another, and rarely carried any through to completion.)
There have been many similar cases throughout history. There comes a time when the plaintiff needs to let go. Being first is not the only determining factor. When Marcel Gley publicly protested that he and not Frederick Banting was first to discover insulin, Oscar Minkowski replied “I know just how you feel. I could also have kicked myself for not having discovered insulin, when I realize how close I came to it.”