Discussions on invention can cause one to think about scientists in lab coats working in rooms with test tubes until finally, BOOM!, one explodes and the inventor comes out and says, “I have made my great discovery.” (When I was a kid I loved the movie, The Absent-Minded Professor, the original old black and white film about Flubber.)

Edison saw some of the processes of inventing in a similar way. He said that some of his insights would come “with a burst,” and then the work would begin. Next you would need to fix the “bugs”. Then with additional study and work, you may get to the point where it is a commercial success.

But when describing his experience with inventing the light bulb he describes the process a little differently. As you will remember, in order to get the light to work he tried thousands of approaches that did not get the desired results. Or as he put it, “Results? Why, man, I’ve gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward…”

Here he does not talk about a burst of insight, but rather a more meticulous process. First you try one approach, when that does not work you try another, and then another and then another. Eventually he tried thousands of approaches until he found just the right one.

Edison describes this process in the following way, “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments…Through all of the years of experimenting with it, I never once made an associated discovery. It was deductive… The results I achieved were the consequence of invention–pure and simple. I would construct and work along various lines until I found them untenable. When one theory was discarded, I developed another at once. I realized very early that this was the only possible way for me to work out all the problems.”

This Blog was originally posted January 18, 2011.