How You Can Profit From Thomas Edison's Inventions
For the past few weeks, I have featured today's leading corporations and how their vision, approach and growth strategies have embodied the Immigrant Perspective on Business Leadership. Over the course of the next month, I will begin to feature individuals and today we begin with Thomas Alva Edison - a man who employed the Immigrant Perspective on Business Leadership throughout his life.
The harvest of Edison's work is still enjoyed by millions of people today, even though he died more than seventy-five years ago.
Employ Your Circular Vision
When we think of Thomas Alva Edison, we think of the light bulb or the phonograph or the X-ray. But it was his work on the telegraph that initiated his good fortune; for it was his ability to see a small seed of opportunity that led to the many great harvests that were to come. Edison was only a teenager when he worked as a telegraph operator on the night shift. He accepted the night-shift position because the slower evenings offered him time to study and perform what he called “midnight experiments.” He would bring his experiments into the telegraph station and work on them during the downtime.
It was there his circular vision was put to use. The combination of his amazing mind and his proximity to the equipment focused his attention on how the telegraph worked, and pushed Edison to see an opportunity to make it work better. Most of us would not question something that was already working well, but Edison would—and did.
At the age of sixteen, he unveiled his first authentic invention: the automatic repeater, which transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing the recipient to translate the messages at his own speed and convenience. No longer did the operator have to jump at the first clicks of Morse code and hope he heard correctly. An operator—one very much like Edison, who liked experimenting rather than manning his post—could make use of the repeater to ensure that the entire message was accurate. Through circular vision, Edison observed inefficiencies in the system and then saw an opportunity to improve upon them. But his circular vision was so acute that he saw more than one way. Over the course of his life, Edison would be granted 186 patents for the telegraph and telephony. The automatic repeater revolutionized the telegraph industry.
But it was more than mere invention—it was innovation. There is a difference, which the immigrant perspective understands: an invention is the creation of something new; an innovation is the creation or renewal of something that revolutionizes a community, a city, a world. There is deep power in innovation, and it is with the ability to have circular vision that allows one to move beyond mere invention and tap into it. Edison was gifted in this skill.
Live Your Entrepreneurial Spirit
Edison expanded his good fortune through his ability to live his entrepreneurial spirit. As we have said, he introduced to the world the light bulb, the phonograph, and the X-ray. But Edison’s most important invention was one that you perhaps have never heard of. In 1874, Edison invented the quadruplex telegraph, which allowed the transmission of two signals in each direction down one wire. As a mere invention, this certainly wasn’t more important than other inventions that preceded and succeeded it. In fact, multichannel lines were already in use at that time. Now, what sets the quadruplex telegraph apart is not the invention itself but how Edison put to use the harvest that he reaped from its sale.
Edison sold the quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for the sum of $10,000—a large sum at that time. He then used the proceeds to establish an entirely new way of doing business. The $10,000 went to establish the very first industrial research laboratory in history, the famous facilities in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Flowing from this facility was the technological lifeblood of the twentieth century—the first practical lightbulb, the microphone, the phonograph, the subway, and much more. Some four hundred patents came out of the Menlo Park Laboratory between 1876 and 1884 alone. But equally important to the future of American industry was the new business and innovation model that Edison presented to the world.
At Menlo Park he brought the best and brightest thinkers in each relevant field together under one roof in order to work toward creating a bigger and brighter future. Together, a Swiss clock maker, a German glassblower, a mathematician, machinists, carpenters, and a host of lab assistants dreamed, envisioned and experimented their way to innovative products. They then shared the harvest with the world. By 1884, following the death of his wife and increased periods of absence, Edison finally closed the lab at Menlo Park and moved to New York. Yet he would continue to apply the model he developed at Menlo Park, as would countless others. Edison would go on to found, cofound, or acquire more than 150 companies in more than a dozen industries, including General Electric. It is clear that this man possessed in abundance the skill of sowing entrepreneurial seeds that grew to change the world.
Unleash Your Passion
Edison’s greatest talent lay in his relentless experimentation. Without this skill, his good fortune and his abundant harvests would have been short-lived. Biographers of Edison often refer to the Edisonian Method as that of “trial and error.” Edison defined a problem, such as creating a durable filament for the incandescent lightbulb, and then worked toward a solution to the problem through the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, experiment, and analysis. When something wasn’t working, he would focus on those seeds that showed the greatest promise. He would, in essence, water selectively. He created the first practical light bulb, and then an entire power-delivery system to make it practical. Without the power to make it glow, the light bulb would have simply been an expensive piece of glass.
Today Edison still possesses the record for the most American patents awarded to one individual—1,093—with hundreds more international patents to his credit.
Work With a Generous Purpose
But there’s more to Edison than his inventiveness, extraordinary as it was. Without his passion for the principle of generous purpose, the world would not know the good fortune of his harvest. For example, he established the GE Foundation, which has made millions of dollars of donations toward scholarships and grants. But Edison’s generosity began earlier.
The young Edison used to frequent the Mount Clemens Train Depot, a tiny station between Port Huron and Detroit. One day, he spotted a three-year-old boy by the name of Jimmie Mackenzie wandering onto the train tracks. The story goes that Edison rushed out onto the tracks and pulled little Jimmie to safety as a train barreled toward them. While no one living is quite sure whether this is true, it is certain the young Edison did fetch the small boy off the tracks and move him to a safe place.
The boy, it turns out, was the son of J. U. Mackenzie, who happened to be the depot stationmaster. Mr. Mackenzie was so grateful for Edison’s intervention that he offered to teach him to use the telegraph. Is it mere coincidence that Edison’s random act of kindness, his generous purpose, was rewarded in such a serendipitous manner? This was no happenstance. Edison’s ability to work with a generous purpose —even at a young age—changed not only the course of his life but also the course of the world.
Those that adopt the immigrant perspective on business leadership help make the world a better place to live. The great Edison died with 12 million dollars in his estate, most of that in property. During his life, he made and lost millions of dollars, constantly putting his resources toward mastering the opportunities before him. Now his good fortune is ours to enjoy and share. Who will follow him? Perhaps one of Edison’s closest friends, Henry Ford, summed up Edison's life when he said the following:
Mr. Edison was comfortably well off. He always had what he needed. But he was not a moneymaker . . . his own portion was a mere nothing compared with the wealth he created for the world. It is clear that this man was one who knew the good fortune available to those who see, sow, grow, and share the opportunities available to us all. A world with more Edisons is without question a better world.