One of the remarkable results of Edison’s work is that he left behind approximately five million pieces of paper that recorded his professional life as an inventor and businessman. Edison didn’t begin as a systematic record keeper. That came gradually. By 1871, however, he was firmly committed to the practice. Previously, he kept plenty of paper and notebooks around so he could record ideas, experiments and diagrams. But this was not done in a carefully organized way. However, that eventually changed. In late 1870, on the last pages of a pocket notebook he wrote, “of all new inventions I will hereafter keep a full record.” As we would expect, Edison followed through on this commitment.
Because of this commitment, he and those who worked with him—the Muckers—created about 3,500 notebooks, a remarkable record of their work. Within the millions of pages in those notebooks are found details of the methods they used to invent the 20thcentury. These notebooks were found in almost every nook and cranny of the laboratory at West Orange or in the Menlo Park facility. By the end of his life, Edison had proven himself to be a fastidious record keeper. It seemed that no idea was too small to escape his pencil and notebook. He expected the same of his Muckers.
As we look at modern-day, practical applications of Edison’s methods of making innovation happen, these Muckers’ notebooks are very significant. A close look at his notebooks, reveal much about attitude and process, highs and lows. As we would expect, he and the Muckers were not afraid to make careful note of failures. And, of course, they relished writing about their successes.
By making careful records and referring back to them often, a remarkable benefit accrued. Ideas, inventions, and processes evolved that probably wouldn’t have without the passage of time. An idea here, then follow-up thoughts were added, and soon an underlying concept or idea emerged that led to significant discovery. All this happened because an early idea was recorded then followed up again and again with added improvements.
Adapting such practices into our personal and professional lives can also lead to remarkable results. If we combine quiet time with consistent record keeping we should be on our way to new ideas and innovations that will make a difference.
This blog was originally posted July 13, 2010.