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One Man, Multiple Inventions: The lessons and legacies of Thomas Edison One Man, Multiple Inventions: The lessons and legacies of Thomas Edison
by Murray Hunter
2012-07-14 11:05:12
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One Man, Multiple Inventions: The lessons and legacies of Thomas Edison
Looking at entrepreneurship & innovation through biographies

There are so many different interactive forces impacting upon both the individual and the environment that influences entrepreneurship and innovation, creating new opportunity configurations. Looking from the biographical context allows us to examine the flow of events, the context in which they occurred and the impacts upon society these actions and events had. Looking directly at the biographies of historical figures can assist us in seeing the historical contexts of their efforts, innovations, or inventions. This may help us to understand how their insights occurred and opportunities were identified and exploited, showing us the reasons behind the trajectories these historical figures took with their inventions and innovations which impacted upon society’s future development path[1].

Entrepreneurship and innovation is truly a human endeavor. Looking at entrepreneurship and innovation from a biographical perspective tends to bring in human perspectives that may not otherwise be seen. To understand the importance of place, and time, one must look at the situations they faced through their perspectives to appreciate the creativity of the individual concerned at the time. Entrepreneurship is also a social phenomenon, linked to our society and culture.

A synopsis of the life of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1837, the Seventh child of Samuel Ogden Edison and Nancy Matthews Elliot. His parents were actually Canadian but his father had to flee Canada due to the role he played in the Mackenzie rebellion of 1837[2]. Edison only spent a very short time in formal schooling and was taught at home by his mother who was a school teacher, for the rest of his early years. There are numerous stories about Edison’s youth which cannot be accurately verified[3]. However it can be verified from a number of sources are that Edison had the tendency to daydream and one of his first entrepreneurial activities was to sell newspapers and snacks on the train from Port Huron to Detroit[4]. It is also reported from Edison’s early years that he preferred reading literature, which he did at the Detroit library while waiting for the return train to Port Huron and had distaste for physics and mathematics[5]. Edison tended to be weak at mathematics and drafting, preferring to think up things that needed to be invented and getting financiers to support while he worked out how things could be done, most often hiring someone who would be most likely to find the solution to the particular problem[6].

While on the Port Huron to Detroit run, Edison saved a station master’s three year old son from falling in front of an oncoming train for which the father was grateful and rewarded him with an intensive course of training as a Morse code operator[7]. This was a great career opportunity at the time and after the course, Edison got a job at Stratford Junction, Ontario. Shortly after Edison decided to return home to Port Huron and found that the military had acquired the family home, his father did not have a steady job and his mother was on the verge of a breakdown. Around 1866 Edison took a job with Western Union where he worked on the Associated Press news wire. He requested the night shift so he could read and do his experiments. However this caused him dismissal when sulfuric acid from a battery he was working on split onto the floor and dripped through to his boss’s office below[8].

Edison moved to New Jersey where he stayed as a lodger with a friend Franklin Leonard Pope who was also a telegrapher. During this time Edison experimented with the telegraph and also invented a voting machine which failed to work when he demonstrated it. Edison and Pope formed a partnership Pope, Edison & Company Electrical Engineers in 1869 to undertake another venture. Pope had been working on a stock ticker, which was accepted and employed in a number of stock exchanges around the country. The company was bought out for the sum of USD $15,000, a small fortune at the time, where Edison was now able to financially assist his parents.

Edison had established a name for himself as an inventor and was commissioned by Western Union to undertake some invention on their behalf. Edison solved the problem of share-price printing machines going haywire and this impressed many within the firm. Edison was made a payment of somewhere in between USD $30-40,000, which was a staggering sum for the time[9]. Edison was then allowed to head his own division and hire his own staff to build stock-price ticker machines. It was during this time that Edison recruited a number of men that were to stay with him for a number of years. These included Charles Batchelor an engineer and draughtsman, John Kruesi a Swiss clockmaker, and Sigmund Bergmann a German mechanic. During this period Edison often worked day and night, not worrying about his own personal appearance but produced a number of inventions and improvements to inventions.

Edison made his first trip abroad to England in 1873 to see if the British Post Office might be interested in buying some of his patents. He proved his telegraph worked well between Liverpool and London, but upon being asked to demonstrate how his telegraph would work over a 2,200 mile cable that was to be laid between Britain and Brazil, his telegraph failed.

Edison returned from Britain empty handed. Back in the United States Edison became involved in so many jobs for competing companies but was losing money. A financier Jay Gould from Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph company appeared with a check for USD $30,000 to buy out Edison and get him away from Western Union. Even though Edison now had funding, he was very tired of the maneuverings between Gould and his rival Vanderbilt at Western Union.

In 1876 Edison left what he was doing and with the money he received from Jay Gould set up what could be called the first industrial research laboratories at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Now Edison was free to take work from anybody he wanted and brought over many of his colleagues in to carry out the development work under his direction. Again Edison showed his determination by working day and night, motivated by the possibility of fame and fortune from his inventions. Edison was the first inventor to see that the business aspects were more important than the invention itself[10]. There was no point inventing something that nobody wanted.

One of Edison’s first jobs was for Western Union to improve the telephone devised by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. While working on improvement of the telephone Edison and his team found that they could record and play back the spoken word. Edison originally conceived of a device that would be like an answering machine. Although his phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a ground cylinder, it had poor quality, and could only be used a few times. However this invention seemed so amazing to the public that Edison himself became dubbed the ‘wizard of Menlo Park’. Such a device had numerous potential applications and a company was set up to commercialize it, but the technology was too crude for commercial use.

During 1878, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania George Barker invited Edison to accompany a group to observe the total eclipse of the sun in the Rockies. Edison went along and both of them discussed the potential operations of electricity, including its use for lighting. Barker upon their return arranged for Edison to visit a company called Wallace and Sons in Connecticut that operated a brass and copper foundry and had developed a powerful electrical generator or telemachon[11]. They were experimenting with carbon arc lighting systems and trying to send electrical currents over long distances.

According to a report, Edison was totally enraptured by the concept and gloated over the demonstration, immediately sitting down trying to calculate the power of the instrument, the lights and the probable loss of power during the transmission. Edison saw the technology in terms of how much coal it could save over a week, a month, and a year, and the effect it would have on manufacturing[12].

Edison immediately ordered one of Wallace’s telemachons and envisaged a world lit by an electrical lighting system modeled on the existing gas supply system which was fed through the streets and into individual homes. Carbon arc lights were too bright and uneconomical for home use, so Edison had to devise a new version of the incandescent light bulb which had been the subject of experimentation by other inventors for many years. Edison also considered the numerous other requirements that an electrical distribution system would require including generators, sockets, switches, meters, etc., to produce the equivalent to a gas network.

Electric light was not a new idea, especially in Europe. There had been a number of attempts by people including Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Moses G. Farmer, William E. Savage, and Heinrich Göbel to perfect the concept. Most of the electric lights produced had a very short lifespan, used a lot of electricity and were expensive to make. Paul Jablochkoff developed arc lamps which were very successful for street and lighthouse lighting. By 1877 Jablochkoff’s were used all over Paris streets. A year later electric street lights were tested along the Thames Embankment. However they didn’t last long because they were more expensive to run than gas.

Joseph Swan in the United Kingdom had been developing the light independently of Edison. By the 1860s Swan had a working model and obtained a British patent for a carbon filament incandescent lamp in partial vacuum. However due to the poor vacuum, the light was inefficient and had only a very short life span. By 1875 Swan was able to improve the light bulb with a better vacuum. Swan obtained another patent for the lamp in 1878 about a year before Edison and then obtained another patent in 1880, where he started into commercial production.

Meanwhile Edison at Menlo Park was frantically undertaking experiments on the light globe and other devices required to build an electrical distribution system. William J. Hammer was assisting Edison on perfecting the incandescent lamp, testing each version as it was developed. By 1879 Edison had been able to produce a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum that would burn hundreds of hours. Edison was ready to show his inventions to the public.

The Paris exhibition was chosen by Edison as the stage to show off his invention and outshine his rivals. The judges were asked to compare four different incandescent light bulbs from Swan, Edison, a British inventor St George Lane Fox-Pitt, and an American Hiram Maxim[13]. The four light globes appeared much the same but it was the good public relations of Edison and alleged bribing of some influential journalists to give Edison a favorable write up that won the day for him[14].

Edison continued to improve upon the light globe and had a number of disputes over intellectual property that took a number of years to sort out. Some of Edison’s financiers managed to sort out a dispute with Swan’s patent claims by forming a joint venture company which became known as Ediswan in 1883, where Swan also agreed to Edison having the American rights to the light bulb.

In the United States Edison had filed a patent for an electricity distribution system in 1880 and formed the Edison illuminating Company in New York City. The system went live soon after with a generating plant in Lower Manhattan producing a 110 volt DC current supplying 59 homes in the area.

There were a lot of obstacles to electricity being accepted universally. Gas in Europe was much cheaper and the price of kerosene made lighting by lamps much cheaper than electricity. Edison and George Westinghouse were locked in a battle over using direct verses alternating current (AC) which led to many theatrics such as the public execution of animals by Edison’s people to show that AC was more dangerous than DC.

The lessons and legacy of Thomas Edison

Although Edison didn’t invent the first electric light bulb, it can be argued he developed the first commercially practical light bulb. However through his good public relations he convinced most that he was the actual inventor. Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to occupy almost two city blocks, showcasing the first commercially orientated new product development laboratory in modern industrial history, with an objective of systematic invention and development. Edison’s laboratories went on to invent and develop carbon microphones, the fluoroscope, the kinescope, and the development of electric trains. General Electric was formed in 1890 to bring together all of Edison’s interests and stands as a legacy to his work. Edison had more than 1,000 patents to his name and became an industrial leader based on invention, innovation, ability to attract financiers and scientists, and public relations.

The biography of Thomas Edison helps us see the importance of systematic development work, self promotion, and having a workable and viable business model in mind to exploit any subsequent invention. These were paramount elements of his success. Many of the failing entrepreneurs of the dot.com bust of 2000 failed to see the necessity of having a workable and viable business model to exploit their ideas and could have well learnt from the lessons Edison gave us. Any invention must have direct benefits to users that they can easily recognize. It is not the invention itself or the technology, but what it can do for the consumer. Application is probably the most important aspect of invention, which is often forgotten. Success comes to those who are able to bring new concepts to the marketplace. Thus invention is not the key, but modification and improvement is what creates marketability.

Edison’s life also shows the importance of fate, where through certain life events like saving the station master’s son and chance meetings with people, new life paths opened up. Edison’s biography also shows that success is not something that one can expect without serious efforts that may not necessarily be rewarding until many years afterwards.  This is the meaning to the words “…I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways how not to make a light bulb” attributed to Edison.

Success has never been about intelligence but the ability to generate new approached through creativity and work hard on them. We also see that within the process of creativity, there are no leaps or illuminations that come from nowhere. The Wright Brothers’ invention of the airplane, Thomas Edison’s development of the light globe and Picasso’s development of a new style of painting were all the result of incremental advances built upon previous work. Probably one of the greatest tools these people had available was the ability to imagine new ideas working in the world.

The transmission of electricity to homes allowed a host of other electrical devices to be invented. Many inventions, subsequent commercialization and acceptance by society have dramatically changed our way of life over the centuries. Electricity and the electric light, the aircraft and jet engine, the automobile and combustion engine, and microchips, computers and mobile phones have all in different ways drastically changed society. These changes have led to further opportunities where entrepreneurs have been able to exploit.

We see that Edison is one of some of the most famous entrepreneurs of our time did not complete college. Thomas Edison finished school at 12, Steve Woznick and Steve Jobs did not graduate, and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, while Michael Dell quit the University of Texas to start Dell Computers. Probably common was the dedication to keep working on their ideas, and at some junctures the occasional ruthless act.

What we certainly don’t know is where a new Thomas Edison, Oprah, Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Sam Walton, or Steve Jobs will appear and what they will do. This is the most unpredictable element of the future but also the most important driver of the future.


[1] Chandler, A. D. (1962). Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of American Industrial Enterprise, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

[2] A series of uprisings in Canada in the name of seeking political reform.

[3] There are many versions of Edison’s early life with different dates related to events.

[4] Weightman, G. (2007). The Industrial Revolutionaries: The making of the modern world, 1776-1914, New York, Grove Press, P. 328.

[5] Israel, P. (1998). Edison: A life of Invention, New York, John Wiley.

[6] Weightman, G. (2007). “The Industrial Revolutionaries”, P. 328.

[7] Baldwin, N. (1995). Edison: Inventing the Century, New York, Hyperion.

[8] Baldwin, N. (1995). Edison: Inventing the Century, pp. 40-41.  

[9] Weightman, G. (2007). “The Industrial Revolutionaries”, P. 330.

[10] Weightman, G. (2007). “The Industrial Revolutionaries”, P. 333.

[11] http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NOT18781225.2.14&e=-------10--1----2-- (Accessed 27th January 2011)

[12] Friedel, R., Israel, P., & Finn, B. S. (1988). Edison’s Electric Light, Camden, NJ., Rutgers University Press.

[13] Hiram Maxim was ahead of Edison in the United States. He started his career as a carriage maker at the age of fourteen on to engineering works, gas lighting, and then to pioneer the electric light. He sold out to Edison in 1881 and moved to London where he invented the Maxim machine-gun.

[14] Weightman, G. (2007). “The Industrial Revolutionaries”, P. 339.

 


    
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