Thomas Edison – Citizen of the World

During his life, Thomas Edison had the most recognizable face in the world when newspapers and magazines were the chief forms of mass communication. He was sought after for interviews, quotes or news stories about his latest inventions. Even today, his famous quotes are still requested by folks wanting to know more about the great inventor. Consider this quote…

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

In light of what is happening in the worldwide application of solar technology today, it is indeed sobering to realize he made this quote way back in 1910…..almost 110 years ago!

There are museums and memorials to Mr. Edison around the world. In Kyoto, Japan there is a beautiful stone memorial to electric lighting, celebrating how Kyoto was the source of bamboo used in early Edison light bulb filaments.

Edison Memorial in Kyoto Japan

Edison Memorial in Kyoto Japan

Kokichi Mikimoto, inventor of cultured pearls, was a big fan of Edison. He met the great American inventor in 1927, whereupon Mr. Edison praised the quality and beauty of Mikimoto pearls. Today, these pearls are a worldwide sensation. In Japan, Edison is ranked number three when Japanese citizens are asked to identify popular historical figures. In China, Thomas Edison is often ranked first in surveys as to who is the best known American personality.

Edison’s achievements and technology were often featured at various national and international demonstrations and expositions. One especially noteworthy one was the Paris Exposition of 1889 which featured Edison electrical equipment. While here, Edison and his lovely wife Mina took in the sights, with Edison visiting the Eiffel Tower with the designer George Eiffel.

Thomas Edison Paris Exposition Display in 1889

Thomas Edison Paris Exposition Display in 1889

Many countries celebrate Mr. Edison’s legacy of achievement by teaching their students about him; sometimes even more intensely than in American schools. Every year, the legendary Edison Labs in West Orange hosts visitors from around the world who come to learn about their favorite inventor. In the last 10 years, visitors from Holland, England, Germany, Russia, Australia, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia have come to see his West Orange labs.

Many professional organizations have named science, technology, invention and achievement awards after the great inventor.

Thomas Edison said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison Style Creativity

Most folks associate the word creativity with Thomas Edison; and the world’s greatest inventor certainly went out of his way to keep his product development teams in a creative fervor. Consider…whenever he appointed a team to address a new challenge…..he urged them to strive to create a minor invention every ten days and a major one every six months. How is that for a stretch goal, as we say today in the business world!

Part of the large storeroom at West Orange

Part of the large storeroom at West Orange

In Edison’s famed heavy machine shop, old Tom kept plenty of materials and tools on hand so creative ideas and experiments did not have to grow cold waiting on materials to be purchased. Just get yourself down to the storeroom and requisition what was needed and it would be charged back to your project. Edison always quipped he had every conceivable material on hand from the hide of an elephant to the eyeballs of a U.S. senator! He even had human hair available. His goal was to keep those ideas flowing and ready to be tried out quickly in prototype form—actually what we call maker labs today.

The famed inventor also understood the value of humor. If you worked for old Tom, sooner or later you were going to be the butt of a practical joke; and the old man was fair game too…often giving as good as he got. In fact, at his previous Menlo Park labs, there was an old pipe organ and plenty of cigars in the labs that were unleashed during midnight dinner fests—with sing-a-longs used to lift spirits and get minds well-oiled for the wee hours stretch of work. By the way, another very creative inventor did much the same thing with practical joking and such around his labs….Walt Disney.

Edison R&D employees outside the electrical / physics shop at West Orange

Edison R&D employees outside the electrical / physics shop at West Orange

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Too often today, inventors and creative R&D minds in too many companies are excoriated for failing. Edison knew the value of failure was three-fold:

  • It ultimately produced a better product
  • Could produce a serendipitous surprise
  • Or maybe lead to a whole new line of new products.

Lab legends tell us he tried 3,000 experiments before he got his reliable light bulb filament; and 10,000 experiments to make his nickel-iron storage batteries perform correctly. Talented teams not afraid to try something new, because they might fail, are going to be mighty creative indeed.

Let’s not forget the value of Edison’s massive corporate library, right there in his incredible main office. There was a treasure house of technical materials that inventive teams could access to see what others around the world were doing in areas of interest. It was a kind of very slow worldwide web of today, but an essential aspect of designing and developing new products.

The great Edison library/office---with his desk shown at right

The great Edison library/office—with his desk shown at right

Surely Edison should be remembered and revered for his inventions, but also for his ground-breaking work as an R&D leader and very effective project manager.

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison Fire-1914

Date: December 9, 1914
Place: Edison West Orange Labs [NJ]
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Action: Large explosion in Building 41, film inspection area.

The great fire of 1914 was triggered by highly combustible nitrate film exploding. Nitrate film at that time was composed of nitrocellulose, also known as gun cotton, a major ingredient of naval munitions…and known to be highly combustible if in an unstable state.

By 6:20, six other buildings were afire; by 7:40 another six buildings were also engaged-for a total of 13 active building fires. This level of activity quickly overpowered the 72 man Edison employee fire department and several other large neighboring city departments. At about 9:30 powerful explosions from stores of volatile chemicals inside the buildings rocketed flames 100 feet aloft, causing secondary fires as far away as 5 blocks. During the night as many as 10,000 people gathered to see the “barn-burner.”

An eerie night glow as fire guts a large factory building

An eerie night glow as fire guts a large factory building

Many employees scurried about to save precious artifacts in the famous R&D labs and Edison’s office/library from flames that were perhaps a few hundred feet away. Mrs. Edison was among those helping to save her husband’s legacy.

In the heart of the fire…notice in foreground badly twisted steel support columns

In the heart of the fire…notice in foreground badly twisted steel support columns

According to a 1961 Reader’s Digest article by Edison’s son Charles, Edison calmly walked over to him as he watched the fire destroy his dad’s work. In a childlike voice, Edison told his 24-year-old son, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” When Charles objected, Edison said, “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.” Later, at the scene of the blaze, Edison was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.” He told the reporter that he was exhausted from remaining at the scene until the chaos was under control, but he stuck to his word and immediately began rebuilding the next morning without firing any of his employees. [Credit to: “Thomas Edison’s Reaction To His Factory Burning Down Shows Why He Was So Successful”; Richard Feloni [May 9, 2014]]

This building….a total loss!

This building….a total loss!

The fire cost him nearly $1 million, with only about one-third of that covered by insurance. Good friend Henry Ford loaned Tom $750,000 to help him get back on his feet. Words of encouragement and sympathy poured in, especially from President Woodrow Wilson and George Eastman. Some beautiful words from Nikola Tesla—

“As one of the millions of your admirers, I send you my sympathy. It is not only a personal and national loss, but a world loss, for you have been one of its greatest benefactors.”

[So much for the trumped up enmity between these two great men]

While 1500 men were engaged to clean up the damage, Edison was true to his “I shall return spirit”. In a couple of days his employees were in nearby temporary facilities; and by New Year’s Day, just three weeks hence, his factory buildings were partially restored with his people hard at work. Only one employee had died in the horrific fire.

In 1915, Thomas Edison Industries chalked up $10 million in revenue. Way to recover Tom!

[Credit also to Bruce Spadaccini, former Museum Technician for his two articles about the fire, information from which was included here.]

Thomas Edison said, “The world owes nothing to any man, but every man owes something to the world.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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