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Business: The Quintessential Innovator

10 minute read

Where are you, Edison, now that we need you?

He was an odd sort of hero. A millionaire who often lived like a bum, sleeping in a closet with his clothes on—because he believed that taking them off promoted insomnia—and spitting on the floor even in his cherished laboratories. A picturesque swearer who hired assistants whom George Bernard Shaw called “sensitive, cheerful and profane; liars, braggarts and hustlers.” A would-be tycoon so crotchety and bullheaded that he could give little credit to the ideas of others; so inept in business matters that he lost control of the immensely profitable companies he founded. An incurable show-off and self-promoter who circulated so many myths about his personality and accomplishments that 48 years after his death historians are still struggling to separate legend from fact.

But Thomas Alva Edison was also the most prolific inventor who ever lived; without his gadgets modern life would be inconceivable. The phonograph, the movie camera, the microphone, the mimeograph, the stock ticker—they only begin the list. Though Alexander Graham Bell devised the first telephone transmitter and receiver, it was Edison who worked out a system of reproducing phone conversations over long distances loudly enough that they could be heard easily, and who may have been the first to shout “hello” into a telephone mouthpiece. His one discovery in basic science—the “Edison effect,” the emission of electrons from a heated electric conductor—led eventually to the creation of the electronics industry. which has given the world radio, television, computers, radar and other marvels. Indeed, Edison’s inventions are literally too numerous to mention. He set and retains the record for U.S. patents held by an individual, a staggering 1,093.

Above all, Edison invented the first practical electric light, and a power-distribution system that put it cheaply into every home. Like much else about Edison, the precise date is in dispute, but the inventor himself remembered Oct. 21, 1879, as the day on which he began the test of the first successful light bulb.

Are there lessons to be learned from the life and ways of the quintessential Yankee tinkerer that could help revive the flickering spirit of U.S. invention? Any understanding of the great inventor must begin by stripping away myths. Edison, who had a lust for glory and a constitutional inability to refrain from embellishing a good story, saw to it that that would be no easy job; he perpetrated an incredible number of myths about himself. He often boasted that he had never attended school for a single day. Untrue. He had at least three years of formal education as a child—a stint that was not unusually short in the rural Ohio and Michigan of his youth. As a budding inventor, he also attended classes in chemistry at New York City’s Cooper Union after realizing that his self-taught knowledge of that science was inadequate.

He talked so often about his need for no more than three hours’ sleep a night that the story has become enshrined in biographies. A half-truth at best. When the Ford Motor Co. archives were opened in 1951, researchers found many pictures of Henry Ford and his pal Edison in laboratories, at meetings and on outings. In some of these photos, Ford seemed attentive and alert, but Edison could be seen asleep — on a bench, in a chair, on the grass. His secret weapon was the catnap, and he elevated it to an art. Recalled one of his associates: “His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep any where, any time, on anything.”

The truth is somewhat less flattering to Edison than the myths. Like many a genius, he was often a terrible trial to those who had to get along with him. He disliked not only changing his clothes but bathing, damaged his health by subsisting on pie and coffee, and neglected his two wives and six children. He lavished material goods on them, but otherwise paid scarcely any attention to them; in fact he rarely slept at home, preferring the laboratory. His first wife died grossly overweight; his second once said their marriage had been “no great love.” The Hollywood picture of Edison as a dedicated battler for the good of humanity could hardly be more wrong. Much as his inventions did benefit humanity, Edison’s object was to make money, as much as he could. His first patent was on a device for automatically and speedily recording votes in Congress and state legislatures; but because such a machine was seen as a threat to the filibuster, the legislators did not want it. Edison later took delight in recalling what he had resolved then and there: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” For once, there is no reason to doubt his word.

He did make money; when he died in 1931 he left an estate of more than $2 million. Not bad for the depths of the Great Depression, but a puny sum compared with what a good businessman could have realized from Edison’s inventions. Part of the reason for Edison’s failure to capitalize on his own ideas was his fanatic resistance to any attempts to modify them. He insisted for too long that his cylinders made better recording devices than the more practical discs, and, because he had worked with direct current, he fought the introduction of alternating current. He gave demonstrations in which stray dogs were electrocuted with jolts of A.C. to dramatize a nonexistent threat to the safety of humans.

Another reason for Edison’s inability to hold on to money was his extravagance. He excelled at raising venture capital (J.P. Morgan helped to bankroll his effort to invent the electric light), but had a genius for spending even more than he raised. Not on himself; his oddball personal habits were far from extravagant. But no sum was too great to lavish on his laboratories; Edison ordered the most expensive materials on earth, like platinum, by the pound. He was also the creator of the modern research and development lab, which he called an “invention factory.” He was the first to hire a team of scientists and technicians and set them to work systematically producing innovations. But his inability to stay within a budget would speedily get him fired from any corporate lab today, if his spectacular untidiness did not discourage the lab from hiring him in the first place.

What then was the secret of Edison’s inventiveness? The core of it must remain as elusive as the mystery of why Rembrandt handled chiaroscuro so masterfully; it was an inborn gift, honed by practice but unteachable. Nobel-prizewinning Physicist Isidor I. Rabi, for one, maintains that Edison could no more have stopped himself from inventing than a born punster can refrain from playing word games. Robert Conot, author of a 1979 biography of Edison, A Streak of Luck, observes that Edison’s mind “multiplied devices from a single idea like a dividing amoeba and then compartmentalized the creations and endeavors.” He was supremely self-confident; if prevailing opinion was that a device could not be invented, that only made Edison more convinced that it could. And Conot depicts a man who was totally open-minded about how to proceed—until he came to a conviction, at which point he turned into a doctrinaire fanatic.

Edison had habits of mind that can still be useful to would-be inventors and their bosses. One was simple—but incredible—persistence. It was Edison who said that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” No matter that he hired assistants to do the sweating while he provided the spark; nearly all his inventions came after thousands of experiments that failed but taught him something. The only device that worked on the first try was the phonograph. It was a piece of serendipity; Edison had been trying to invent a device that would permit telephone messages to be sent over telegraph lines, and was astonished to discover that the apparatus could record his own voice. Partly because the phonograph came so easily, he distrusted it enough to fail to capitalize on its moneymaking potential. (Another reason was that he had poor hearing and no real appreciation of music, and did not realize what a bonanza could be reaped by recording melodies.)

Edison also saw inventions in a social and commercial context. He drew up lists of inventions that the world needed, or at least would buy, and set out to produce them. In the case of electric light, gas was already lighting homes, and electric arc lights were illuminating streets and stores—though much too brilliantly, and expensively, for general use. The need, Edison saw, was for some other form of electric illumination that would provide a steadier and, above all, cheaper glow than gas.

To produce it, he drew on the ideas of others, as he often did, though he gave them no credit. After experimenting with any number of materials, he hit on carbon. He tried to give the impression that he came up with that idea independently. In fact, says Biographer Conot, his laboratory notebooks prove that he read and underlined reports of the experiments of Joseph Swan in England. Swan had invented an electric bulb that used a fine carbon rod.

There were technical differences between the bulbs that, Edison’s partisans say, made his superior. For example, Swan’s carbon rod was fairly thick, Edison’s filament was thin. But a crucial difference was that Swan stopped with inventing the bulb, while Edison took what would now be called a “systems approach”; he saw that the bulb had to be only one of a whole series of inventions. To make it in the first place, he and his assistants had to produce a more complete vacuum than had ever been known before. Then they had to devise a power-distribution system for lighting the bulbs in millions of homes. In Edison’s words: “There was no precedent for such a thing, and nowhere in the world could we purchase these parts. It was necessary to invent everything: dynamos, regulators, meters, switches, fuses, fixtures, underground conductors with their necessary connecting boxes, and a host of other detail parts, even down to insulating tape.” They did, and on Sept. 4, 1882, Edison gave the order to throw the switch lighting up a small section of downtown Manhattan.

What drove him to invent? The desire to make money and win personal glory, of course. But even Edison saw that was not enough. One of his less noted sayings pointed the way not only for inventors but for all those who work with their brains. He plastered his labs with a quotation from Sir Joshua Reynolds: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking,” to which Edison added one of his own: “The man who doesn’t make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasures in life.” A most unorthodox and in many ways unattractive thinker, Edison nonetheless multiplied the pleasures of life for everyone who listens to a record, watches a movie or flips a light switch.

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