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Thomas Edison’s Legacy as Both Inventor and Innovator

With over 1,093 patents to his name before his death in 1931, most people know Thomas Edison as an inventor.

Paul B. Israel, the Director and General Editor of The Thomas A. Edison Papers, is not one of those people.  Israel has spent most of his career studying the work of Thomas Edison and how Edison became a great innovator.

At an Innovation lecture series hosted at the Rutgers Business School in late October, Israel gave a presentation entitled “Edison and Innovation” that explained how Edison commercialized his inventions and gave birth to the modern innovation process.

 “Edison was so effective because he was more just an inventor,” Israel, who was the 2000 recipient of the distinguished Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, said.

“There are lots of inventors.  Lots of people who own patents.  But Edison learned how to be an innovator.”

The Thomas A. Edison Project is a research center at Rutgers University that chronicles Edison’s life and accomplishments by analyzing more than 5 million of his documents. Israel, who has spent the last three decades studying Edison’s legacy, maintains that Edison was just as much an innovator as he was an inventor.

“What set Edison apart from his contemporaries is that he figured out the process from the initial idea through the patenting stage to the research to the development to the commercialization stage,” Israel said. “He was involved in all of those processes.”

From a young age Edison demonstrated qualities that would eventually set him apart from his contemporaries.  While working on the Grand Trunk Railway as a newspaper boy, Edison also set up a periodical stand, a vegetable stand, and a candy business. Edison employed other boys to work his stands and deliver his goods to traveling customers, making quite a profit in the process.

Perhaps more impressively, Edison turned a baggage car on one of the trains into his own personal laboratory where he carried out chemical experiments and printed his own newspaper at age 15. Edison’s desire for his own laboratory came from an early appreciation of the importance of research that fundamentally drove his career.  His first taste of the commercial innovation process came when he was given a contract to develop telegraph technologies for the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company in Newark, NJ in 1870.

“This agreement is really interesting because he is not just asking for support for his work, he is getting a little workshop,” Israel said.  “This is really crucial because he turns this workshop into his first real manufacturing shop.  Edison is learning not just the value of fundamental research, but research aimed at understanding the technology he is trying to develop.”

Manufacturing and research would become a crucial part of Edison’s revolutionary innovation process. After securing investments from Gold and Stock, which would later become the Automated Telegraph Company, Edison built several factories in the Newark area. By the middle of 1875, Edison would have all of these factories consolidated into one building on Ward Avenue, with two floors dedicated to manufacturing and two floors devoted to scientific laboratories.

“Edison is beginning to change the meaning of the shop. The shop now becomes a lab.  It also encompasses basic applied research,” Israel said. “For Edison, experimenting to understand the technologies he is working on in a more fundamental way becomes very important. If he couldn’t find the stuff in the books, he did the research himself.”

After research at his Newark labs led to significant contributions to printing telegraphy and the invention of the electric pen and quadruplex telegraph, which allowed four messages to be sent over a wire at one time, Edison decided to move his work to the quieter confines of Menlo Park, New Jersey.

At Menlo, Edison used the majority of the money he had made to build a large laboratory that was equipped with every kind of apparatus for scientific research, as well as the usual facilities for perfecting any kind of telegraph system. Edison’s Menlo Park lab also contained a machine shop, which posed a problem for Edison as it cost about $100 a week to run.

But Edison would not be deterred by this slight financial obstacle. Instead, his solution would make him a pioneer for corporate support for research.

“He writes this letter to William Orton (President of Western Union) asking for support for the machine shop. Edison soon signs a contract that will include his work on the telephone and telegram, and he is getting that $100 a week from Western Union,” Israel said. “This investor funding of a new technology, something we think about as commonplace today, was very unusual in Edison’s time.”

Following his inventions of the carbon transmitter, which he developed from research conducted on England’s telegraph system in 1873, and phonograph at Menlo Park, Edison turned his focus to electric lighting. After announcing to the public that he had created an electric light in 1878, Western Union once again funded Edison’s work, creating the Edison Electric Light Company in the process.

Between October of 1878 and March of 1881, Edison and the Edison Electric Light Company make 130,000 light bulbs, the equivalent of about $3 million in today’s money. Consistent with his whole life, Edison was not concerned with riches, instead opting to use the money to further his research and innovation.

“The first thing he does is he expands his lab. Now he has a real research facility.  The (new) library is as important as the shop and chemical and electrical laboratories are to the way Edison works,” Israel said. “He begins to hire new kinds of people to do experimental things.  Edison understood that as his lab grew he needed to figure out how to organize inventions.”

Edison research teams consisting of experimenters, assistants, and machinists became increasingly important in helping Edison run his system. These teams were very crucial in altering technologies and making them more viable, and as Edison’s lab expanded, so did his teams.  

“What you increasingly see is teams devoted to the lab, to sockets and fixtures, to developing safety fuses, figuring out conductors, figuring out the distribution system, coming up with the meter, and continuing improvement of the generator,” Israel said.  “There is an entire system being developed by groups of people working together to figure out how to commercialize these technologies.”

 

Although Edison was very effective at hiring other people and allowing them to set up the operations of the company, he always remained highly involved in his work. In Edison’s labs, every worker was required to keep time sheets, documenting everything he or she worked on.  Edison was also careful to keep records of the shop resources, and was extremely attentive in managing company assets.

Edison would eventually move his Menlo Park facilities to New York and Harrison, NJ in the late 1800’s to devote his focus to his electric lighting and power systems. There, Edison would commit his work to driving down the costs of his electrical system, eventually successfully doing so and creating a commercially viable system.

“The process that he developed and learned to use at Menlo Park in West Orange, as well as the laboratory research and process, is still very much important,” Israel said.

Having created over one thousand patents and numerous companies, Edison’s worth at the time of his death was estimated to be about $12 million.  But Edison’s wealth from his inventions does not fully reflect the magnitude of his accomplishments.  Rather it is his legacy of the commercialization process in which he took income from one technology and enterprise and invested and funded ongoing invention and innovation.

“For Edison the goal was invention and innovation,” Israel said. “It was the challenge of creating these new technologies and introducing them that Edison was excited about.”