Edison and Innovation Blog

Learning Innovation from Thomas A. Edison
September 29, 2010

Edison and Innovative Products

Author: Don Mangum, Jr. - Categories: Thomas Edison - Tags: ,

Thomas Edison took innovations from a dream, to the drawing board, to reality. His last step, of which he was a master, was taking this new innovative product to market. Many of us can come up with a new idea or approach to a problem, but can we take it to the market where it will do the most good for our company and the customer? Here is an example of an innovative product that a few years ago would have been the stuff of dreams or science fiction.

September 21, 2010

Edison and the Secrets of Sleep

Author: Don Mangum - Categories: Become More Innovative, Thomas Edison - Tags: ,

Recently I read a National Geographic article titled, “The Secrets of Sleep.”  The authors discussed many ideas related to sleep, including why we sleep and why we don’t or can’t sleep.  It also laid out the stages of sleep and even put them on a graph showing the sleeping stages of a typical adult sleeper by following their brain waves throughout the night.  The writers suggested that there are three stages of sleep.  Stage 1 is light sleep when we may drift in and out of wakefulness.  Stage 2 is deeper sleep when brainwaves slow, but there are also occasional bursts of brain activity.  Stage 3 is deep sleep with very slow brain waves.  In the midst of these stages is a condition or period called REM or Rapid Eye Movement.  During REM sleep our brain is very active and almost all dreams take place during REM sleep. 

After I read the article I became more conscious of my own sleeping habits and also periods of high creative thought during my sleeping.  For example, the article described one of the possible purposes of sleep saying, “…memory consolidation may be one of the functions of sleep….the sleeping brain may weed out redundant or unnecessary synapses or connections.  So the purpose of sleep may be to help us remember what’s important, by letting us forget what is not.” 

In the nights that have followed since studying this article, I have found that while sleeping I go through periods of cycling through memories of the day.  I think this happens during my periods of Stage 1 sleep.  While this is happening, I sleep for a period, then in a state of semi-wakefulness I process some of the issues of the previous day and then fall back to sleep.  This may happen several times over a period of an hour or two until things seem to be resolved, and then I finally go into a deeper sleep, probably Stage 3 sleep. 

In the early hours of the morning as I am becoming more and more awake my mind seems clearer and some of my most creative thinking takes place .  Frequently, I have found that there are enough good ideas that I try to write down the thoughts that have punctuated that period.   Some of them have proven to be very helpful on current projects. 

Through all of this, I am reminded of the pictures of Thomas Edison sleeping in the laboratory.  Although his sleeping habits were unusual, his sleeping likely served a similar function of clearing out the weeds and setting up a more productive environment for creativity.

September 8, 2010

Edison and Avatar

Author: Don Mangum - Categories: Innovators - Tags:

Recently, while we watching a short documentary on the filming of Avatar, we wondered if Thomas Edison and Avatar director James Cameron followed any similar principles in their work.  We quickly found the similar principles.  To save time and space we will not list Edison’s application of these principles, only Cameron’s. 

1.    Using His Own Prior Experiences to Build New Technologies

Conjuring up this exotic world of Pandora allowed Cameron to engage in “big-time design,” he says, with six-legged hammerhead thanators, armored direhorses, pterodactyl-like banshees, hundreds of trees and plants, floating mountains and incredible landscapes, all created from scratch. He drew upon his experience with deep-sea biology and plant life for inspiration.

In order to pull more data from the actors’ faces, Cameron reworked an old idea he had sketched on a napkin back in 1995: fasten a tiny camera to the front of a helmet to track every facial movement, from darting eyes and twitching noses to furrowing eyebrows and the tricky interaction of jaw, lips, teeth and tongue.

2.    Engaging Associates to Come Up With New Technologies

Cameron challenged his virtual-production supervisor Glenn Derry to come up with a virtual camera that could show him a low-resolution view of Pandora as he shot the performances.

The resulting swing camera (so called because its screen could swing to any angle to give Cameron greater freedom of movement) is another of Avatar‘s breakthrough technologies.  We won’t give more detail here, but this creation has future applications as it evolves that will probably create alternate realities right in the theatre.    

3.    Willing to Endure a High Degree of Risk Taking

Cameron is perhaps even more famous as the industry’s biggest risk-taker, which might have made him a lot of enemies if his risks hadn’t been so spectacularly rewarded in the past.

The director’s unquenchable thirst for authenticity and technological perfection required deep-sea exploratory filming, expensive scale models and pioneering computer graphics that ballooned Titanic’s budget to $200 million. This upped the ante for everyone involved and frightened the heck out of the studio bean counters, but the bet paid off—Titanic went on to make $1.8 billion and win 11 Academy Awards.

Or as a Hollywood insider described Cameron’s style of directing, “there’s a term in Hollywood for Cameron’s style of directing.  They call this ‘building the parachute on the way down.'”

Describing his drive, Cameron said, “You have to eat pressure for breakfast if you are going to do this job.” And then he added, “On the one hand, pressure is a good thing. It makes you think about what you’re doing and your audience. You’re not making a personal statement, like a novel. But you can’t make a movie for everybody—that’s the kiss of death. You have to make it for yourself.”

4.    Continuously Using an Active Imagination

 A unique hybrid of scientist, explorer, inventor and artist, Cameron has made testing the limits of what is possible part of his standard operating procedure. He dreams almost impossibly big, and then invents ways to bring those dreams into reality.

Sigourney Weaver, who plays botanist Grace Augustine, calls it “the most ambitious movie I’ve ever been in. Every single plant and creature has come out of this crazy person’s head. This is what Cameron’s inner 14-year-old wanted to see.”

5.    Not Afraid of Hard work and Intense Effort

But it turns out there is no magic formula that can supplant hard work and lots of trial and error. After Cameron complained about a problem with the photographic images, the technology company spent another year perfecting it.  This resulted in the remarkably realistic faces in the computer generated images.  Ultimately, these changes were enough to meet Cameron’s sky-high standards.

It would also be interesting to consider the differences between Edison’s innovative style and Cameron’s.  That analysis will probably show up in a later blog. 

Note:  Much of this blog post is from information found in a Popular Mechanics article about Cameron and Avatar.  To read the entire article, click here.

September 2, 2010

Toward a Definition of Creativity

Author: Don Mangum - Categories: Become More Innovative - Tags: ,

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the definition of innovation.  Since then, I have been considering the process of innovation and its component parts.  Creativity, one of these component parts, leaps out immediately.  Simply put, creativity is a fundamental part of the process of innovation, but they are not the same thing.  Furthermore, the way we define and use the word creativity in the 21st century is only the current stopping place for the meaning of creativity. 

The idea or meaning of “creativity” has been evolving for literally thousands of years.  In its earliest use, the concept of creativity was limited to the work of the Gods, including the work of God creating the universe out of nothing.  Gradually, the meaning of creativity expanded to include the work of visual artists, especially those who paint, draw, sculpt or design buildings.  Today, the meaning of creativity has evolved to include almost any act that results in the production of something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.  However, even this simple attempt at a definition is inadequate to fully describe the creative act.

Understanding the neurological processes of creativity is even more complicated because this scientific endeavor is in an almost infant state.  Consequently, there are many theories of the processes that result in creativity.  Many of these theories seem to contradict each other and this further complicates our ability to fully assess how creativity takes place. 

With this in mind, we won’t spend a lot of time in this post considering the definition of creativity, rather we will let some creative people describe the process.  This will move us toward the meaning of creativity without the limiting effect of a narrow, short definition.  In the interest of time and space, I choose to highlight only a few thoughts from among the many that could be considered.   

Thomas Edison described the creative moment when he said, “The first step is an intuition and comes with a burst.”  He also said that, “Inventors must be poets; otherwise they will not have imagination.”

Albert Einstein said, “”The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  Further, he added, “Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.”

Walt Disney, one of the great creators of our time, described the creative process this way.  “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”  Curiosity, a building block of creativity, will no doubt be the topic of a later blog post.

Continuing, the noted artist, Vincent van Gogh, cautioned those who become discouraged by a perceived lack of creative talent when he suggested that, “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, echoed van Gogh’s thoughts with the simple words, “Anyone can draw.”  This is a statement I challenged because of a life long belief that I could not draw.  Happily, I learned that she was right and, after studying the principles in her book, I can draw!  

Today, I wonder what other hidden creative gifts are buried in the undiscovered talents and abilities of each one of us.