Over the past year and a half we have researched the lives of more than 100 innovators. It has been a fascinating and rewarding exercise. We have learned a lot about innovation, business and leadership. One key thing we have learned is that if you had to pick one innovator who stands out above the rest, it would be Thomas Edison. This blog will explain some of the reasons why Edison’s life is such an important source for learning about innovation.
1. Edison innovated in different fields – Edison’s successful inventions were in multiple fields. For example, he dealt with electricity, such as the light bulb, devices with electric motors and improvements to the telegraph. He created the phonograph, which has no electrical parts, and he made improvements to the telephone. He was a pioneer in the motion picture industry and also worked with iron ore separation. Any innovator will improve their chances for success by becoming familiar with Edison’s work no matter what they are innovating.
2. Edison did not just create new products, he created entire industries – When Edison created an invention he often had to create the supporting infrastructure and the related industry. For example, once the light bulb was created he still had to create the electrical distribution system. This included everything from power generators to the electric meter so he would know how much to bill each customer. The phonograph and motion pictures required that the product be played or viewed. Edison also had to create everything from recording and motion picture studios to the distribution systems to get these materials to the public. Studying Edison in this area not only provides insight in inventing, but also in taking the invention to market, even if you have to create the market yourself.
3. Edison not only had great success, he had great failures – Edison did not have a perfect record with his inventions. However, he just kept right on going no matter the setback. He tried to build concrete homes, got involved in iron ore separation, and created a very scary doll. None of these ventures were financially successful. He also struggled in picking the right music to be distributed with the phonograph. His deafness probably didn’t help in this area. The mistakes he made provide us with a lot of opportunities to learn about innovation, even if we only learn that a mistake is often a step in the right direction.
4. Edison left a wealth of materials for us to learn from – Edison kept extensive records by writing everything down. He also encouraged those he worked with to do the same. He left literally millions of pages we can study. This gives us an enormous opportunity to learn innovation from the master.
These are just a few examples of why Edison can teach us about innovation. It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. With Edison the opposite is also true, those who are willing to learn from history will be able to repeat Edison’s success.