Real Leaders

Want To Save The World? Start Thinking Like Thomas Edison

One eighth of the wealth of the world can be traced back to the ideas of this prolific inventor. Once named by Life magazine as the single most important individual of the past thousand years, how did Edison create those ‘light bulb’ moments – before the light bulb had even been invented?

We’ve all heard of Thomas Edison, the iconic inventor, businessman and game changer, regularly mentioned alongside other great minds such as Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. During his lifetime, he created some of the world’s most famous inventions; such as the light bulb, and began industries that have matured into multi-billion dollar enterprises; such as playable (on-demand) music, which many would be unable to live without today. After a slow start at school, largely related to his family’s limited resources, Edison discovered his talents as a businessman.

His entrepreneurship was inherited from his father, a carpenter, shingle maker and land speculator. His mother, a schoolteacher, opened his eyes to the world by teaching him, “ how to read good books quickly and correctly,” as Edison later recalled. As an adult Edison was a voracious reader, and his ability to read and process large quantities of printed information contributed greatly to his success. By the time he retired Edison had founded 14 companies and planted the seeds to what was later to become General Electric, one of the biggest publicly traded companies in the world.

At age 21, he had already patented the first of 1,093 inventions in the United States. Edison did not simply set out to build a better candle; he wanted to find a whole new way to illuminate the darkness. That’s the kind of vision a real leader has. “As a measure of how Edison changed the world, consider this,” says John Keegan, President and CEO of the Edison Innovation Foundation. “When he was born in 1847, there were no industrial research laboratories, no phonographs, no motion picture cameras, and no electric power systems, let alone a practical electric light.”

When he died in 1931, the New York Times estimated the value of the industries based on his inventions at more than $15 billion. His inventions made the modern age possible. It wouldn’t inaccurate to portray Thomas Edison as a forerunner of re-cycling either, particularly in respect of his inventions. He used the state of the art research and created a development center to improve his old inventions and create new.

Today, we live in a somewhat sanitized and risk adverse twenty-first century, bound up in regulatory red tape, with lawsuits in hot pursuit of any company that builds on the innovation of others. While many have criticized Edison for taking too much credit for much of the innovation developed by his teams, he was none-the-less a forerunner in creating collaborative development – a concept that is looked on today as a standard, and good, business practice Let’s start with one of the most important factors that influenced Edison – the times in which he lived.

The late 1800s and early 1900s was the era of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and around the world. Numerous scientific discoveries were being made and becoming more important in people’s lives. Someone with mechanical abilities and scientific discipline – such as those that Edison possessed – had the opportunity to invent or improve on many needed devices, effectively solving the social needs of the time. While he was certainly an ingenious scientist, Edison had a grander entrepreneurial vision than other solo inventors of his time.

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His manufacturing and business endeavors led to enormous success and were the driving forces behind much of his scientific decision-making. From the 1870’s through the 1920’s Edison’s laboratories at Menlo Park, New Jersey combined knowledge, resources and talented collaborations to turn ideas into commercial products. His laboratories introduced new products on a regular basis and his invention formula shifted from talented individuals working alone to organized groups working in laboratories, established specifically for industrial research and development.

Diversifying the products in these laboratories allowed Edison to apply ideas and concepts from one invention to another, which also helped to minimize marketing risks. Edison was a master at creating solutions through highly organized think tanks. Rather than waiting for the answer to present itself he embarked on an aggressive process of investigation to flush out an answer that he knew must already exist, somewhere.

His very pragmatic approach and the dismissal of romantic ideas around inventors of the day, had him assert that problem solving was no accident: “It is too much the fashion to attribute all inventions to accident, and a great deal of nonsense is talked on that score.” “Edison operated on an international scale before the modern globalization of the world’s economy,” says Keegan. “He manufactured and marketed his inventions in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. Heavily reliant on globally resourced raw materials and skilled workers, he was also influenced by the ideas and concepts of an international community of scientists and researchers and, in turn, a global public eagerly awaited his latest invention.”

Edison’s experience as an innovator is as relevant today as it was over a hundred years ago. He devoted considerable attention to the questions all innovators face in modern times: Which products should I develop? How should those products be designed, manufactured and marketed? How do I raise money to support research and development? How do I respond to competition and changing markets? But what made him stand out as a successful innovator? Diversity across a range of interests, the pursuing of research across many different fields, the drawing on of past experiences and solving of new problems, were his greatest strengths combined with a dual persona: the mythic, larger-than-life “Wizard of Menlo Park” – a tireless heroic inventor who gave us light, sound and moving pictures – and the innovator who spent his life solving technical problems in shops and laboratories and creating companies to manufacture and market new technologies.

One could not have existed or indeed been so successful without the other. Bill Gate’s has attributed Edison as a key inspiration in his career, and as an innovator too, quickly recognized the practicality that must exist to resolve world problems. “Edison was a very practical person,” says Gate’s. “He learned early on that it wasn’t enough to simply come up with a great idea in a vacuum; he had to invent things that people wanted.”

The same might be said today of pressing social problems that need urgent answers. It wasn’t always easy. He encountered a large number of problems along the way. He once famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” However he learned to pivot on problems and his ideas, recycling them into other products and successes for which they weren’t first intended. While we currently obsess about glass, paper and plastic recycling, many forget that ideas too can be recycled. “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned, doesn’t mean it’s useless,” he once said.

If you nurture the ability to pivot on projects and ideas, you’ll not only save time, but also potentially produce something even better then you might have thought possible. Perhaps one of the most telling characteristics of Edison was his work desk, still preserved intact at the National Historic Park Museum in West Orange.

Of the many cubbyholes above his work area one is marked “New things” in neat handwritten letters and filled with folded papers; proof of his irrepressible interest in the next big idea. “If he were alive today, he would be on the cutting edge of innovation,” says Keegan.

While Edison shifted our awareness of the world, connected us all for the better and put the planet on an industrious path that has made our lives easier, he would no doubt look at our current, pressing economic challenges and repeat what he told his colleagues more than 80 years ago: “There’s a better way to do it. Find it.”


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