Posts belonging to Category All About Tom



Thomas Edison – A Founder of the Electric Utility Industry

Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City operated the world’s first modern electric utility system. Known as the Pearl Street Station, it serves to this day as the model for generating and distributing electric power.

Modern power station

Modern power station

As we watch more renewable energy technologies like solar and wind come on line, many experts wonder about the fate of today’s electric utilities. The sun does not always shine and the wind is subject to long lulls. How will this impact the reliability of electricity we have come to expect; and to the digital economy so important to our economic growth? Does this mean we need to co-install massive energy storage facilities either in a centralized or distributed fashion as more and more solar and wind systems are put into service?

Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels

Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels

Renewable advocates are loudly proclaiming a total solar/wind energy grid by mid-century. While it is technically feasible, is it a wise path? Wouldn’t a diverse energy mix be more logical and desirable? Back in the 1970s, the world learned a harsh lesson when too much of its energy economy was invested in oil. Is it wise to swing back to the other end of the energy spectrum for philosophical and political reasons?

While Edison did originate our modern electric utility system, he did have a great sense of what the future might hold. Consider his quote, circa 1910……

“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.”

Stay tuned for the many discussions you will likely hear about our nation’s energy future; and remember…..Thomas Edison is still relevant in the discussion!

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.

Share

Thomas Edison Magic

Many marvel at the great inventor’s prodigious output, the breadth and depth of his patents and the great industries he is responsible for starting…recorded sound, motion pictures and the electric light/utility systems. He also made significant achievements in telegraphy, telephony, battery storage and the manufacture of cement; but his “magic” is much more important–for when these industries are replaced by other things, his true genius will still be evident and eternally relevant.

A young and proud Edison shows off his phonograph to President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, 1878.

A young and proud Edison shows off his phonograph to President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, 1878.

Ever see a modern laboratory or research facility like at a high tech company, an academic lab on campus, or maybe you were lucky to walk the halls of the world famous Bell Labs. You notice a great similarity. Long halls with many labs and teams of researchers busy, creating the future. Each lab a world unto itself, consumed with making something happen…ideas being born into prototypes. This model derives directly from Edison’s early work at his Menlo Park labs, later super-charged at his formalized invention factory at the legendary West Orange Labs.

This first, true R&D lab he invented gave tremendous advantage over other inventors who tended to be lone wolf or independent dreamers. Using his natural leadership and management skills to create the right teams of people and expertise, Edison could explore a large number of ideas at once (typically 30-40 at a time); and could:

  • Invent faster than competitors, giving him market and surprise advantage
  • Take advantage of spinning off technological achievements into whole families of inventions
  • Multiplex his insights and wisdom across multiple teams at once
  • Develop his staff into independent inventors and project managers like himself
  • Develop management and leadership styles that would suit specific situations, invention challenges and team make-up.
  • Set goals and timelines so the R&D lab was constantly running at capacity and efficiency
  • Maintain a centralized stock of ready materials so teams always had what they needed to create their prototypes.
Edison knew the leadership value of working with his teams, often eating and joking with them. This was the heart of the magic of his invention factory.

Edison knew the leadership value of working with his teams, often eating and joking with them. This was the heart of the magic of his invention factory.

Although Edison provided initial guidance and suggestions on how to approach each problem, the experimenters were often allowed, and indeed encouraged, to find their own way to a solution …

“I generally instructed them on the general idea of what I wanted carried out, and when I came across an assistant who was in any way ingenious, I sometimes refused to help him out in his experiments, telling him to see if he could not work it out himself, so as to encourage him.”

The more his stable of inventors achieved, the more responsibility they were given. His centralized library also gave inventors a huge resource of information at their disposal as well. He even set stretch goals for his teams….an minor invention every 10 days and major one every 6 months!

Like his project teams, Edison often retreated to a secluded lab of his own to explore something new

Like his project teams, Edison often retreated to a secluded lab of his own to explore something new.

Careful records of each experiment were kept in notebooks as a permanent record of learning was thus preserved for possible patent application filings; as well as a jumping off point for other teams to carry some line of research further or into related areas. A daily update newsletter kept by his office staff served to let Edison know every day what was happening with his project teams. Careful records of expenditures, stores drawn from the centralized stockroom and timesheets were kept for each team’s activities. We see this done today via sophisticated computerized programs, helping to determine the cost effectiveness of new product development. It would seem R&D lab operational procedures were also pioneered by Edison.

Like any good R&D organization, a capable staff keeping project managers aware of what is going on is indispensable. Here Edison confers with staff.

Like any good R&D organization, a capable staff keeping project managers aware of what is going on is indispensable. Here Edison confers with staff.

So powerful and advantageous was Edison’s R&D lab, that before he dies in 1931, the world’s great companies implement their own labs; and America’s business model for converting raw ideas into new ready-to-be-marketed products forms the mainstay of our team based, technology driven economy. Today, we teach this head and hands, problem solving philosophy starting in America’s middle schools. It’s called STEM or perhaps STEAM. The currently popular term “maker space” derives from all this. This year, America will spend over $500 billion on R&D in all sectors-business, government, academia.

That dear readers, is Thomas Edison’s greatest and most enduring invention/accomplishment, a process to keep our nation’s technological cornucopia always overflowing!

Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

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.

Share

Thomas Edison – Relevant in the Classroom

Teaching Thomas Edison in the classroom is the fundamental expression of what STEM/STEAM is all about, how he changed the world with his invention process-the so-called invention factory, later re-named R&D labs. It was his greatest invention.

Many teachers and educators write in to us, access our websites and visit the Thomas Edison National Historic Park [TENHP] to learn how to bring his lessons into the classroom. Shown below are some tips for integrating Edison into the classroom.

Edison at his office desk-always studying new things.

Edison at his office desk-always studying new things.

The roots of his 1093 patents always began with detailed notebooks of his experiments and findings. Whenever student teams work on developing new ideas, have them keep track of their work in a team notebook, practicing the important skill of documenting their findings. This will help them continually improve their inventions—something Edison would heartily applaud.

Original Edison sketch for the phonograph!

Original Edison sketch for the phonograph!

The invention process you encounter in STEM literature is basically the one Edison used to codify the iterative invention process:
1) Identify a problem worth solving
2) Evaluate the economics/market needs
3) Identify constraints, impacts, challenges
4) Identify/test potential solutions-invent!
5) Validate invention against 1), 2) and 3)
[repeat 1) thru 5) as necessary-re-design/re-evaluate original problem]
6) Market the invention
7) Grow and improve the invention

Use this process to empower students to ask questions. The quality of solutions is dependent upon the quality of the questions asked. Teach them how to ask tough questions! Let your students be like “hard boiled” detectives when they have problems to solve-to get in there and turn every problem inside-out, learning as much as possible about the problem and how proposed solutions could be used.
The questions are especially important to step 3) above…dealing with constraints and limits that can affect any new invention.

A smiling Edison

A smiling Edison

Host a website/newsletter in your class/school. What a great way to promote and practice communications! Have students develop a website accessible to the entire school, and perhaps other schools within your district. Students can write articles about how Edison changed the world, influencing us yet today. All things Edison can be explored and discussed, along with publicly available photos of the great inventor and his work.

Invite inventors into the classroom, modern day inventors so they can explain how to use creativity techniques to develop solutions to problems. Allow your students to learn first-hand from men and women who invent as a living or as a vital part of their jobs as engineers, technologists, scientists…etc. Consider writing articles about the meeting with inventors and publish them on the school website mentioned above.

Which was Edison’s greatest Invention? Study the many inventions created by Edison, fostering a debate about the pros and cons of his introduced technologies. How did his technologies impact the economy, society, environment, culture, and standards of living? Make sure your students marshal their arguments as quantitatively as possible.

Check out these websites for additional information and classroom projects and activities:

Have a wonderful school year and happy inventing!

Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves …”

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.

Share