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.

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Thomas Edison Salutes the Right Stuff – Astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly

The Kelly brothers, Scott and Mark are West Orange bred, and like Thomas Edison who spent the majority of his life in West Orange, they have the “right stuff”. The only twins ever to serve as NASA astronauts, the Kelly’s know how to adapt and survive in rapidly changing conditions, and fly by the seat of their pants if necessary—exactly the kind of fellows Edison would have hired.

A proud Town of West Orange celebrated their life work, renaming their old elementary school, formerly known as Pleasantdale Elementary to Kelly Elementary. In March 2016, Scott Kelly returned to earth after 340 days on the International Space Station. Brother Mark Kelly is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. Scott and Mark are now retired.

Brothers Scott and Mark Kelly [L-R] at the re-naming of their elementary school in their honor

Brothers Scott and Mark Kelly [L-R] at the re-naming of their elementary school in their honor


In his book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott explains the physical impacts of prolonged spaceflight, the impacts on his body as he re-adjusted to normal gravity upon returning to his native planet. An excellent and dramatic re-counting of this is found in a recent Smithsonian article, “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, September, 2017. From this perspective, how will today’s aspiring commercial space entrepreneurs deal with what pioneer Scott Kelly went through? NASA has been dealing with space concerns since the early 1960s; and all that knowledge was focused on getting Kelly safely into space and back again—a huge commitment of resources and experiential knowledge gained over six decades. In fact, Kelly’s long stay in space was designed to gather even more data about the physiological, and mental impacts of humans in space. While Scott Kelly was in great physical shape, he experienced difficult physical readjustments upon his return. What of space travelers on commercial flights?

Scott Kelly with weightless fruits and vegetables aboard the International Space Station

Scott Kelly with weightless fruits and vegetables aboard the International Space Station

Imagine what Scott also experienced, the stress he felt while circling the earth with his fellow astronauts. He describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight; the isolation from everyone he loves and the comforts of Earth; the pressures of constant close cohabitation; the catastrophic risks of depressurization or colliding with space junk, and the still more haunting threat of being unable to help should tragedy strike at home.

West Orange school district science teachers welcome Scott Kelly home

West Orange school district science teachers welcome Scott Kelly home

Scott Kelly has a message of hope for the future that will inspire us nationally like that wonderful feeling as we aimed for the moon in the 1960s. His story is a triumph of imagination and human will, against the unending wonder of space. Mars for Scott is our next logical step.

Editor’s Deep Dive on Scott Kelly:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Kelly_(astronaut)
https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/kellysj.pdf
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH8fdKP2hzo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YfyvA8AxLw

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Thomas Edison had a fascination with space as well. His Tasimeter invention was designed to measure the heat of the sun’s corona during the great eclipse of 1878; and his idea for measuring radio waves from the sun in 1890 was a very early concept for what later would become radio astronomy. He and the Kelly brothers would have much to talk about!

Thomas Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life, it was all fun.”

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 – Scavenger Hunt Winners

Thomas Edison - Scavenger Hunt Winners

Congratulations!

After reviewing more than 200 entries, the results are in:

1st Place Winner: Kellie Moran – $1,000*

2nd Place Winner: Tiffany Liang – $500*

3rd Place Winner: Jayla Nartatez – $250*

*In categories in which multiple correct answers were submitted, winners were chosen from a pool by random selection by Chairman of Charles Edison Fund, sponsor of Scavenger Hunt.

Winners will receive an email for confirmation. Once confirmed, the apple gift card will be mailed directly to the winners.

The complete answers to all questions can be see on the following social media sites:

Thank you to all participants!

>> View contest answers

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