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Edison's greatest invention was the process of innovation.

Deepu Asok
Deepu Asok
4 min read
Edison's greatest invention was the process of innovation.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. As a child, he did not receive much formal education. His mother was a former high school teacher who gave him a few years of instruction at home. His father Samuel Edison was a jack of all trades who tried his luck at different ventures ranging from real estate speculation to running a small grocery store.

In his early teens, he stumbled upon a book that described various chemistry experiments, and Edison was hooked. At the age of 12, he got a job selling candies and newspapers to passengers on the local train and during his breaks, he would run his little experiments from the baggage car of the train. However, he was kicked out of the train by the Ticketmaster when one of his experiments started a small fire.

But nothing could stop him from tinkering with new ideas and inventions. He would later go on to create several inventions from a voting count machine, the phonograph, and the light bulb which would become the crown jewel of Edison’s invention career. However, Edison’s greatest invention was not the light bulb.

His greatest invention was completed on 25 March 1876, a white two-story building in a quiet town on the Pennsylvania Railroad line from New York to Philadelphia called Menlo Park. He affectionately called it the “Invention Factory”. It was here where Edison and his team of assistants would go on to produce and perfect inventions that would literally change the course of modern life.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Institution

The Menlo Park lab was the first of its kind in the United States. It was the first model of the research and development facility which would later be emulated by public institutions and private corporations. Edison ensured that the new facility would have the capacity to support any kind of invention that he could think of. The second floor of the building had a well-stored chemistry lab while the ground floor was housed with a machine shop with precision tools.

Such an arrangement was unheard of in those times. The inventors of those times were usually lone machinists who were fiddling with small improvements in tools and equipment. Edison’s genius was in realizing that bringing together skilled technicians, specialized equipment, and securing capital to support them, he could build a systematic process for innovation.

The Menlo Park facility housed as many as 200 laboratory assistants and machinists who could run hundreds of experiments for the myriad of problems that he wanted to solve. During the time of the opening of his Invention Factory at Menlo Park, Edison declared that he could produce, “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so”.

Another unique aspect of Edison was the relationships that he maintained with the industry. He would form a strategic alliance with Western Union and promised to supply them with, “every invention that I can make during that time which is applicable to commercial telegraphy." He realized that inventions do not turn into innovation unless you have the means to make them practical and affordable.

As Matt Ridley notes in his bestselling book, How Innovation Works, “Thomas Edison understood better than anybody before, and many since, that* innovation is itself a product*, the manufacturing of which is a team effort requiring trial and error.” Edison’s greatest innovation was not the light bulb, but the process of innovation itself.

According to historian Greg Fields, Edison’s insight into the process of creative invention was what made him unique from others. “One of Edison’s greatest overlooked talents was his ability to assemble teams and set up an organizational structure that fostered many people’s creativity”

In spite of the long working hours and tough problems they faced, people always felt like they were part of something big. Edison made sure that his employees would receive royalties from the commercialization of their inventions. A former employee, Eugene Balstraz recalled that Edison was generous and caring with his employees. When people needed help or were sick and needed money, Edison was there to lend it to them.

Edison understood more than anyone that people are a crucial ingredient in the process of innovation. Unlike machines, people need to understand and connect with the purpose of their work. Unfortunately most leaders today think that if they have the right procedures and instructions, they can get the most out of their people. However, people don’t run on procedures and algorithms, machines do. If you know the right way to inspire them, they will beat any algorithm or procedure.

But, how do we prepare the people to embrace the process of innovation in our organizations? To find the answer to this question, I turned to Dr. BJ Fogg, the founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and an expert in behavioral science.

He told me, “Don’t take non-musicians and try to make them musicians, find the best musicians and put them on the stage”. Edison’s genius at the Invention factory was finding the musicians and putting them on the stage. He managed to find the best machinists, engineers, and scientists and gave them a stage to perform their magic.

Edison knew that Innovation and creativity cannot be forced, but they can be fostered. And foster he did. He created the perfect environment where the process of creativity and innovation can blossom. What we can learn from Edison’s work is that if you create the right environment with a philosophy of creative experimentation, equipped with great tools, and inspired humans, innovation will be a natural by-product.

By the end of his life, Edison has churned out a mind-boggling 1093 US patents, a feat that would make no one ever question his Menlo Park lab’s reputation as the Invention Factory. The Invention factory was Edison’s greatest invention and the process of innovation was his original product.