Much of the world we live in today is a legacy of Thomas Alva Edison and of his devotion to science and innovation. He not only invented the first commercial electric light bulb but also established the first investor-owned electric utility, in 1882, on Pearl Street in New York City. His phonograph, invented in 1877, launched a global recorded-music industry that is worth nearly $150 billion today. But more than a simple series of inventions, Edison’s most lasting contribution might be the system of industrial innovation he helped pioneer.
Edison’s true genius lay in his ability to bring mass brainpower to the process of invention. The laboratory and workshop he established in Menlo Park, N.J., in 1876 — his “invention factory” — put him at the center of a critical mass of assistants with backgrounds in multiple areas of science, engineering and skilled labor. It was essentially America’s first industrial R&D facility, the forerunner of a modern-day geeks-in-a-garage skunkworks.
Edison patented 1,093 mechanisms and processes, including a stock ticker, a mimeograph, a microphone, a mechanical vote recorder and a battery for an electric car. He came up with the crucial devices that gave birth to three enduring industries: electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures. Yet he was an odd sort of hero: a millionaire who often slept in a closet at the lab with his clothes on; a picturesque swearer who hired assistants whom George Bernard Shaw called “sensitive, cheerful and profane; liars, braggarts and hustlers”; a would-be tycoon so bullheaded that he could give little credit to the ideas of others; a businessman so inept that he lost control of the hugely profitable companies he founded. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent,” he said. “Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” By his own yardstick, he was wildly successful.