Thomas Edison, icon of innovation, is best known for his development of a light bulb for the people and for patenting a record 1,093 inventions. His clever use of brain power – his and others’ – is less well known. Its ethos can be used to great effect in modern problem solving scenarios. Flush out an initial idea and then set a team of creative minds focused on finding thousands of ways to bring it to life: the ultimate in collaborative success.
Edison showed entrepreneurial characteristics from childhood, leaving school to sell vegetables and newspapers on the (then new) railways at 12 years old. He harnessed the power of the telegraph system to publicise headlines ahead of his train’s arrival – thus marketing his product and generating demand.
Electricity and technology were his infatuations (much as they can be for today’s teenagers) and he read and digested as much as he could about them. He built his own telegraph line between his house and his friends, and was soon inventing new telegraphic devices, such as the quadruplex telegraph, which he sold to Western Union in 1874 for $10,000.
It was this cash injection which enabled him to establish his ‘ideas factory’ at Menlo Park, New Jersey (not to be confused with Menlo Park, California – where today Facebook employs over 6,000). Here he set himself up as head of a team of inventors – the first operation of its kind.
The Menlo Park laboratory eventually expanded to occupy two city blocks, and Edison aimed to build up “a stock of almost every conceivable material” – including “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels … silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell … cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores …” and the list goes on.
The quote: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” is attributed to Edison’s work to make an affordable light bulb. This was his thinking for every project – and with his Menlo Park collective he could have several projects working simultaneously – to exhaust every possibility until they eventually arrived at the right solution.
By trying different viewpoints and using the brains of those around him, stimulation was never far away. With a rule that nobody from the factory but him could patent the ideas, there was clearly a portion of ego involved. But this was a man who could inspire, generate and facilitate creative thinking. He even learned to let the mind stay open and give it room to play: midnight every night was play time, with the collective treated to food, drink and entertainment.
Described as ruthless by some, the president of Western Union William Orton said: “that young man has a vacuum where his conscience should be.” Edison was accused of exploitation but did more than farm out seeds of ideas. He took other ideas – possibly for problems he was disappointed not to have solved himself – and gave them greater potential. When Bell invented the telephone, it was Edison who worked out a way to make it widely commercial and improve the sound. Just over a year later, he had completed his long awaited phonograph – the first recording device.
His attraction to connectivity and electric spectacle led him to play a role in the creation of cinema. By creating a kinetoscope – with an object you peered through to see a moving picture – he expected to sell the apparatus. He had to reframe when it became clear he had to produce something for people to watch and his collective worked up projection and production.
There’s much to learn from Edison’s approach to creative thinking. His vision for joint thinking and continuous iteration is clearly something that worked wonders to help 1,093 innovations come to light.
Photo of Edison’s lab at Menlo Park courtesy Andrew Balet.