Thomas Edison’s World Value

>Many people ask what was Edison’s value to the world. This is a popular question, especially among teachers and students.

Think first about what his four major inventions have done for our standards of living worldwide—recorded sound, motion pictures, electric light bulb and utility system, and R&D labs. Just these alone substantially changed our world. In 1996, Life magazine proclaimed him the “Man of the Millennium”. Let that sink in. That is the man of the last 1,000 years. Today is 2018. One-thousand years ago was 1018. What was the world and society like back then?

Thomas Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs where on 25 acres of land, 10,000 employees worked with the great inventor to change the world! Most of the buildings on the site were built using his special concrete.

Thomas Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs where on 25 acres of land, 10,000 employees worked with the great inventor to change the world! Most of the buildings on the site were built using his special concrete.

Thomas Edison died in 1931. His great inventions together represent 10% of the world’s gross national product; and since the world economy is about $60 trillion annually, Edison’s achievements today represent approximately $6 trillion worldwide. To further put this in perspective, the U.S. gross national product is about $20 trillion annually.

Consider what other economists have claimed about this man…..his achievements are probably responsible for one-fourth of all the current jobs on the planet. Since there now are about three billion jobs on planet Earth, that would mean 775,000,000 jobs are directly attributable to the genius of Edison and his system of turning raw ideas into marketable products. And there is the key….his system. Edison is the ultimate process guy, project manager extraordinaire, who reduces innovation to a series of simple steps, actually codifying the innovation process of the late 1800s into a technology-driven, team-based method of making new products. It does not matter which technology you chose to innovate upon, the steps are the same….a process for all time, as fresh today as at the inception of his invention factory (his early term for R&D labs).

Arguably the greatest building in the Thomas Edison pantheon, and to the world economy….the Edison invention factory….the first commercial R&D lab.

Arguably the greatest building in the Thomas Edison pantheon, and to the world economy….the Edison invention factory….the first commercial R&D lab.

This paradigm leads to commercial R&D Labs-which every major company in the world duplicates from Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs before he dies in 1931. It is copied at the federal level during World War II to counter the German U-boat threat; leads to the first national lab (U.S. Naval Research Lab), a model for the Manhattan Project during WWI and all the national labs that follow. Last year, the United States spent over $500 billion on research lab activity at all levels – private companies, academia, and federal labs.

In closing, consider how nationally the schools are revamping the middle school curricula to include studying what Thomas Edison did at West Orange. Students are investigating project design challenges using head and hands, and team-based activities to solve real-world problems. We call this curricula STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; and it is sweeping the nation and world. Teachers know the value of STEM and they are coming in record numbers with their students to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park [TENHP] in West Orange to learn about it.

Inside the invention factory is what can be considered the “first maker-lab”, Edison’s heavy machine shop, where prototypes were made and later tested. Today our children through their STEM programs have maker labs to make their 3D prototypes.

Thomas Edison is as relevant to today as he was when he started changing the world. His principles for change are dynamic, and continue to inspire today and future generations of inventors and entrepreneurs. At TENHP we now reach out to schools around the world using advanced telecommunication techniques allowing students and teacher around the world to enjoy a guided tour of the invention factory from the comfort of their classrooms. Thomas Edison would love this!

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 – 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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