Last week I spent a few hours wandering around the machinery of Thomas Edison’s mind.
His collection of wheels, pulleys, belts, motors and, of course, inventions is now a national treasure. From phonographs to light bulbs, Edison’s invention factories transformed our lives over half a century. Each one of Edison’s 1000-plus patents is a testament to the thousands of creative little steps in what, even today, can be called the way of the inventor.
When we think of inventors today, images of wide-screen computers and hoodied-programmers come to mind. From software to smart cars, modern gadgets are funded by crowds, tested by early-adopters and mass-distributed over global wireless networks. The next, next thing goes from hack-a-thon to unicorn in a blink of an eye, often changing our lives forever.
So what can Edison’s achievements teach us today? Walking through the Edison Museum in New Jersey, I saw people taking photographs of Edison’ss early camera with digital technology a hundredth of its size. It was wonderful to see people of all ages looking with wonder and excitement at how invention used to be done. If only they could talk to Edison, I wondered, and then I realized: They were!
Thomas Edison’s life holds inspiration and wisdom for us today. His story is that of everyone who strives to make something better: from the coolest gadget to the simplest service. Edison’s museum is filled with stops along the way of the inventor. A path that can be followed by anybody, and where anything is possible. As I hope you will see.
Ideas require space.
Today’s innovations still start in a quiet space. The drafting room is that place where we let our ideas ruminate and evolve. Edison’s drafting rooms were far removed from the pressures and noise of the production floor. Here, the idea-men of the past let their imagination do its special work apart from the need to file or save or send. Standing here, I was reminded of a tour of Google I once took, with its many quiet spaces and thinking rooms. Today’s leading organizations understand that the mind does not work on a keyboard alone; nor does it work alone. Google desks are often on wheels, easily moved around to sit next to fellow draftsmen, to collaborate. The impossible and the unlikely are born in quiet corners.
The laboratory still matters.
In Edison’s day, ideas were tested, refined, and reformulated in laboratories. The great industrial lab technicians played with codes and combinations, looking for catalysts, and seeking secret formulas of tomorrow’s exciting inventions. In those days, the lab was a place where testing was done before a product was released to the public. Standing in one lab, I begin to think about today’s process – so sped up – where half-baked products are released to the public long before they are ready. Has the quest for the right result has been lost to the race for investor dollars?
I find it hard to imagine Edison would have been satisfied with being a unicorn company releasing marginally useful products, even if they are “free.” He tested hundreds of variations of horns and cones before releasing his phonograph. Even at 80, Edison grew rubber plants in Florida groves in the hopes of making automobile tires even better. He couldn’t fathom things that weren’t good enough. Many of today’s great companies are always iterating and improving their products. Yet the hard work of getting it right first and early seems increasingly sidelined. Perhaps our way is better; but as my discharged Apple iWatch sits a drawer, I wonder if my ever-ticking pocket watch tells a different story.
The human network still matters.
From drafting board to laboratory to factory floor. Eventually, innovations need to be built. The 3D printers of Edison’s day were mechanical workstations networked by an intricate system of belts and pulleys, hubs and routers, gears and hooks. Every fabrication station was powered from a set of electric motors that energized the whole factory, cutting and shaping ideas into reality.
Almost lost to us today is the understanding that the great industrial factories were far more than assembly lines. Standing on Edison’s factory floor, you see the networking between people and machines clearly: The belts and gears were transmission lines for the guiding hands of the men and women who worked together to create results. It’s the same today: a social network is empty without human contribution; so, too, an e-commerce ecosystem or even email. The most important stops along the way of the inventor are still the places where we encounter each other.
It only takes an afternoon to feel the pull of the inventor’s life. I want to be an inventor, too! my mind repeated. A final stop in Edison’s office finds his chair next to his iconic stock ticker, surrounded by hundreds of books. One is forced to wonder: Could I sit in that chair? Rumor has it that Edison read every one of those books. He was the “human Google” of his day.
Yet after a few moments in this quiet corner, you realize Edison’s chair doesn’t challenge us to be worthy of it: It invites us to use it – and his story – to start our own journeys along the way of the inventor.