Five Professional Lessons from Edison’s Inventive Career

THOMAS ALVA EDISON, fondly called Al, was the seventh and last among his siblings. Mostly home-schooled, he had developed hearing problems early in his childhood. In his teenage, he became a newsboy, selling newspapers on trains. Though he liked to conduct experiments with chemicals, it didn’t take Edison long to discover his talents as a businessman. By the time he was fifteen, he was publishing and selling his own newspaper called the Weekly Herald

Being around with train stations all the time, Edison became enthralled with telegraphy while watching telegraph operators. Soon he got himself trained in telegraphy. As a telegrapher, he realized that things could be improved to create new business opportunities for him. On 1st June,1869, aged 22, Edison got his first patent for a vote recorder. This small invention was the beginning of something really big. 

Lesson One: Try to recognize your inner talents at an early stage of your professional career. Just like Albert Einstein identified his niche for science at an early age, Edison was already aware of his business acumen as a teenager. Early recognition of your key talents will allow you to channel your time and energy positively towards your career objectives.

In 1876, following the invention and successful sale of his quadruplex telegraph, Edison established the first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey—the first of its kind setup for technological innovation. Most of his inventions came from this laboratory, and for this reason, Edison later came to be known as the “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. 

Though Edison is almost always solely credited for his numerous inventions, he had several employees who did the research and development in his lab. Frequently, he would gather his research assistants for brainstorming sessions aimed at resolving problems and bringing about improvements. As his laboratory expanded, Edison gave his assistants shares in various companies associated with his inventions. In time, those assistants, who often complained for being underpaid, would eventually gain direct benefits from the success of those enterprises. 

Lesson Two: Build a team of smart people, interact with them regularly, and motivate them by giving incentives. Edison was notorious for underpaying his employees but he compensated them by offering opportunities to reap the direct benefits of a successful company. This approach could be far more effective for creating a team that owns its work and is motivated to deliver its best output. 

In the summer of 1877, Edison created his “talking machine”. Its technical name was phonograph, and it was an earlier version of a record player. Before long, people started believing that there were magicians sitting in those labs in Menlo Park, Edison being the Chief Wizard. Nonetheless, he made the mistake of restricting his phonograph for business purposes and didn’t push it into the world of entertainment , a decision that proved to be a major opportunity loss subsequently. 

The invention of phonograph could be attributed to a particularly useful habit of Edison: he loved working on more than one project at a time, and he would always look out to apply the ideas of one project into someplace else. Consequently, he would move his assistants around different tasks. By the same token, learnings from an improvement project on telephone microphone led to the creation of phonograph. 

Lesson Three: Keep your team members rotating, particularly if your work hinges on innovation and creativity. Just like Edison liked to apply the ideas of one project to other places, cross functional movement of people creates avenues for knowledge sharing and exchange of ideas. Additionally, such movements ensure that certain skills do not remain restricted to certain individuals – a situation that makes an organization dependent on few experts. 

Over 1000 patents hold the name of Thomas Edison but the one which made him a household name is the invention of a light bulb. There is a small correction, however: Edison didn’t invent a light bulb but improved on it. Incandescent lamps were already invented by people like Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Joseph Swan etc. However, Edison was the one to create the difference. 

People who had tried their hands over incandescent bulbs earlier went no further than demonstrating how light could be produced from electricity. The brilliance of Edison was to improve the lamp design so that it could be easily manufactured, lasted a longer time, and was cheaper to buy. Edison was not just an inventor; he was a businessman who knew how to turn an invention into a marketable commodity. That was the genius of Thomas Alva Edison.

Lesson Four: Learn to create value for your customers. People who invented incandescent lamps before Edison were not able to turn them into user friendly products. Thomas Edison realized the missing link from business perspective and improved on it so that light bulbs could be successfully marketed.

Thanks to Edison’s design improvements and marketing capabilities, light bulbs were now a reliable and affordable household item. The next step was to make electric power as viable as the bulbs. Edison’s own power system ran on Direct Current or DC which had a significant drawback: DC power plants, having immense losses due to low voltage, couldn’t supply power beyond a one mile radius; there was a large gap in power supply.

George Westinghouse, Edison’s competitor, took this void as an opportunity and joined hands with Nikola Tesla—another brilliant inventor, but someone whom once Edison had allegedly mistreated as an employee. Together they went on to bring about an alternative: Alternating Current or AC power distribution system, which depended on high voltages, and had the potential to fill the gap left by DC power. On the other hand, Edison remained adamant that it was not a workable solution. 

By the time Edison found his judgment fallacious, it was too late. His company had already installed more than hundred DC systems and to change now to AC was out of question. As Westinghouse took more and more business, Edison was fast losing out. So much so that by 1892, Edison himself had to announce his retirement from his own company.

Lesson Five: Be flexible in your opinions. As it happened with Albert Einstein who did not accept quantum mechanics as a worthy concept, Edison was not ready to admit the superiority of AC power over his DC power distribution systems. Eventually, Edison had to exit the very company he had established through a long and hard struggle. 

With a total of 2,332 patents amassed from his inventions, the Wizard of Menlo Park took his last breath on October 18,1931. Americans extinguished their light bulbs at ten p.m. for a minute as a tribute to the man who had lit America and the rest of the world. 

11 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Edison’s Inventive Career

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