Edison’s Valuable Memorabilia Celebrates His Vision

Thomas Edison memorabilia and antiques are always good sellers, whether in private transactions or bid situations like on eBay or other forums. Memories of the great inventor are highly collectible. Recently, at auction, a 1911 photo of Edison, bearing his handwritten note and signature, went for over $31,554. The photo had been estimated to have a $5,000 value, so passion for the man’s memorabilia had clearly dominated the bidding. This photo [below] shows Edison cradling his famous nickel-iron, alkaline storage battery; and bearing the note, “I believe time will prove that the Alkaline Storage Battery will produce important changes in our present transportation systems.” The signature at the bottom is known as the famous Edison umbrella signature.

Edison’s Valuable Memorabilia Celebrates His Vision

According to Associated Press who reported this story, the photo was the property of Walter Holland, who worked with Edison on the battery and published his lab reports on the project. Holland was appointed chief electrical engineer of the Edison Storage Battery Company in West Orange, N.J., in January 1911. The photo is dated May 4 of that year.

At the time of this photo, Edison was involved with championing electric vehicles and their batteries as a clean alternative to gasoline powered cars, and of course the ubiquitous horse. Work on this battery, which became one of the most versatile products ever produced by Edison, had been a long and tedious affair, with many failures, and requiring tens of thousands of experiments. His work on this technology is believed to have given birth to one of his famous quotes, “I have not failed 10,000 times, I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” His work on the battery system had begun in the 1890s.

Edison’s Valuable Memorabilia Celebrates His Vision

His rugged batteries also are a popular item that folks collect. These products were used in miner’s hats, lighting railway cars, railway signals, maritime buoys, by the ARMY and Navy and merchant marine and in other applications. It was a forerunner of the durable alkaline batteries we use today. At his West Orange site there was a huge building devoted to nothing but the manufacture of these batteries. In his garage at his nearby home, Glenmont, visitors can see the electric vehicles [and his famous batteries] he and his wife Mina used—as well as one of the first garage-based electric vehicle charging stations he had integrated into the building, exactly what we are talking about today for our garages, but accomplished by Edison in 1908.

Edison’s Valuable Memorabilia Celebrates His Vision

Here we sit 100 years later, promoting the use of electric and hybrid vehicles as a way to reduce our dependence upon foreign oil. Old Tom as usual was right on the money when he speculated back then that we would run out of oil. This technology also fit in nicely with his philosophy about using clean alternate forms of energy like solar and wind. You have got to love the vision of this man, an American original!

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

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Edison and the Roots of STEM

In today’s schools, the educational philosophy known as STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] has become popular and indispensable in integrating subject matter; and teaching young minds about the value of critical thinking and problem solving.

The roots for the modern day STEM philosophy actually date back to the late 1800s, when Thomas Edison was forging his invention factory / industrial R&D concept. It is plainly evident in the small cluster of buildings [which still stand today for public visitation] that formed the central focus of his legendary West Orange Labs. Here in his epicenter of creativity and invention, a one-acre nucleus of buildings formed the heart of Edison’s revolutionary enterprise….. an enterprise that would come to define today’s modern industrial model.

An early photo of the Edison invention factory (ca.1888). These buildings remain to this day. Eventually an additional 20 acres of manufacturing buildings would surround this nucleus of buildings on three sides, employing 10,000 people in the making of a variety of Edison products.

An early photo of the Edison invention factory (ca.1888). These buildings remain to this day. Eventually an additional 20 acres of manufacturing buildings would surround this nucleus of buildings on three sides, employing 10,000 people in the making of a variety of Edison products.

The small buildings arranged to the side of the main prototyping factory contained certain important specialties and expertise, and equipment that would be needed to support the multi-disciplined, multi-dimensional aspects of invention. There was a physics/electrical lab, a chemistry lab, a metallurgical shop, a model making shop; and supporting all this were engineers, scientists, mathematicians, inventors, technologists, machinists, draftsmen, and electricians. Edison knew back then that bringing ideas from concept to market required physical resources, and a multitude of talents and skills…..all conveniently available. He also had marketing, legal, accounting, economic, and sales expertise on-hand as well.

Today’s modern business structure emerges from this integrated approach Edison formed for the solving of problems, and the launching of new products. The world’s greatest companies today have R&D labs like Edison did, fully understanding how R&D project management crucially drives the process of new product commercialization. Edison becomes the first industrial project manager, forming interdisciplinary project teams, often overseeing as many as 30-40 teams at once. He is the premier integrated thinker of his time, matching people, talents, resources, and disciplines to solve multi-dimensional problems creatively.

Teamwork was an essential part of the invention factory “magic”. Pulling “all-night”creativity sessions was not unusual at all. Here in a famous photo, Edison takes a meal with his famous “insomnia squad”.

Teamwork was an essential part of the invention factory “magic”. Pulling “all-night”creativity sessions was not unusual at all. Here in a famous photo, Edison takes a meal with his famous “insomnia squad”.

It is interesting to note how that initial two-acre parcel of buildings at West Orange produced enough new product ideas to keep the surrounding twenty acres of massive buildings around it busy turning out new products. Those factory buildings are gone now, but at one time, the great inventor had 30 companies and 10,000 employees working under the imprimatur of Thomas A. Edison Industries. This is the iron core of strength that STEM thinking can produce in the real world. It has been shown to work for 125 years, forming the foundation for an on-going industrial revolution, and ultimately, today’s digital-electronic explosion. STEM is precisely what is needed in our schools to show the head and hands relevance of the school-to-work progression; and the application of knowledge to addressing world needs. 

Throughout his life, Edison documented his work, staying true to his scientific process of invention. He so loved the process of research and development, he established his office in his library.

Throughout his life, Edison documented his work, staying true to his scientific process of invention. He so loved the process of research and development, he established his office in his library.

The STEM of yesteryear has certainly evolved, and will continue to do so as mankind advances. Back in Edison’s time, most folks were satisfied that new products were time-saving, understandable, and affordable. As our civilization progressed, we developed new concerns [design constraints] like environmental stewardship, product safety, and regulatory impacts that began to re-shape the way we saw the “Edisonian” model of progress; and this made new product development ever more complex, multi-dimensional, and inter-disciplinary….and all of this is good for a society’s growth….but make no mistake, STEM’s taproot lies at the heart of the legendary West Orange Labs, and the seminal idea of perpetuating the industrial revolution as a codified process….a process that revolutionized the cottage industry of invention into a commercial powerhouse. It is Edison’s greatest invention, and the heart of America’s ingenuity. West Orange is the “Mother Ship” of innovation.

The famed Edison library-home to 10,000 technical books, journals and paraphernalia.

The famed Edison library-home to 10,000 technical books, journals and paraphernalia.

Today, the total money spent on all national R&D in all sectors is about $370 billion (2010). That is bigger than the largest US oil companies, and also the entire electric utility industry, probably getting close to giants in revenue like Wal-Mart and the automakers. Obviously this style of STEM thinking has produced and continues to produce great success and wealth. When students study under the guidelines of STEM and technology education they are automatically invoking Edison-style thinking and problem solving, they are being readied for a world of global competitiveness, and adding great value to our society. 

Edison at his roll-top desk, ready for work in his library-office.

Edison at his roll-top desk, ready for work in his library-office.

Technology education does in miniature, what must be done to the entire school curricula……integrate it…change the way we teach school [and teach teachers] to focus on subject integration and creative solutions to problems. Statistical relevance of IQ test scores is not the only metric we need to concentrate on anymore. It is how students solve problems, the thinking processes applied, that we need to address. It is the driver for the future. It will win the competitive wars, and get us back to that Edison spirit, of which President Obama spoke in 2011 in an important address to the nation.

Technology education is the paradigm shift, whose roots are firmly grounded in a small cluster of buildings known as Thomas Edison’s invention factory/R&D lab. Every Fortune 500 company has an R&D lab. What does that say about how valuable STEM thinking is? The customers of technology education and STEM are not just the parents and educators. It is our entire society.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do in the first place doesn’t mean it’s useless….” 
Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Companies and educators try to define creativity and inventiveness. Business gurus and motivational speakers earn lucrative fees by likening it to a series of traits that can be easily identified and exploited. They know that, like Edison, inventors are agents of change and great economic growth; moving the world in new directions, creating wealth and new infrastructure. They are the ones who shift the paradigms, causing earthquakes in the fabric of civilization.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Consider these characteristics of inventors [not in any rank/priority order]:

  • Not easily shaken by detractors—persistent in their work
  • Passionate about what they do
  • Willing to go against accepted thinking
  • Visionary and intuitive
  • Quantitative and analytical—facile with math
  • Not afraid of risk
  • Tolerant of ambiguity
  • Well developed sense of humor
  • Know how to unleash own creative spirit
  • Not afraid of failure—willing to learn from it
  • Can see the creative links to the arts
  • Focused on the future
  • See the whole problem and key parts simultaneously
  • Can sell their ideas to others
  • Builds teams with multi-disciplinary skills to accomplish goals
  • Document and protect inventive work
  • Solve problems from a multi-dimensional viewpoint.

Edison had his own defining characteristics, but those enumerated above tend to capture most of them. For the great inventor, it was largely the thrill of running to ground the problem at hand, to do something useful for mankind, and to constantly learn new things. These motivations fascinated the man throughout his incredibly productive 84-year life; and probably accounted for why, no matter what field he decided to work in, he was a success – and radically changed that field.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Edison was a man in love with new ideas, someone who never seemed to lose that natural awe we have in childhood. Many of the great scientists who changed the world of physics and chemistry loved to “play” with ideas too-retaining that natural awe of the world. Edison was a man in continual re-birth. What a potion this would make for education at all levels today. Actually, educators are re-discovering the Edison magic, urging kids to think out of the box, like Old Tom did; and to use the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] techniques he pioneered at his legendary West Orange Labs. Edison….ever relevant…ever inspirational.

What Characterizes Inventors Like Edison?

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent…. “

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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