Life Magazine selected the 100 most important people of the millennium. “To get on this team,” said the article, “a person had to change more than just a corner of the world—he or she had to divert the course of human history.” On the list were such expected luminaries as Susan B. Anthony (#83), Florence Nightingale (#41), Abraham Lincoln (#35) Albert Einstein (#21), Thomas Jefferson (#10), and Leonardo da Vinci (#5). The person listed at number #1, Life’s Man of the Millennium, was Thomas Alva Edison, arguably the world’s greatest innovator.

If innovation is developing and taking a product to market as suggested by Harold Evans in his best-selling book, They Made America, then clearly Edison is at the head of the class. At the time of his death in 1931 he held 1,093 patents, still more than anyone in history. He invented, improved, or perfected the phonograph, motion pictures, the incandescent light bulb and he even had to develop the electrical power system to support it. His improvements to the telephone made it a practical reality.

Edison made a business of invention by creating an invention factory that in its heyday employed several hundred helpers or muckers as he called them, some of whom were instrumental in making important improvements on the products that bear Edison’s name. His invention factory was the world’s first research and development laboratory. Three new industries, a system of electrification and the first research and development laboratory—no wonder Life called him the Man of the Millennium. Others said he invented the 20th century. At his death he was the most popular and recognizable man in America, perhaps in the world. A few nights after he died, millions of Americans dimmed their lights for one minute out of respect for the man who did so much for the common, ordinary people, the backbone of this great country.