Thomas Edison – Project Manager Extraordinaire

In pioneering his invention factory concept, transforming invention from a cottage industry into a commercial powerhouse for new product development, Thomas Edison crafts the important corporate position we know today as project management. This key position in most companies belongs to men and women who know how to transform raw ideas into new products, using powerful team-based activities and coordination.

The Edison Invention Factory-Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The Edison Invention Factory-Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Many project managers handle several projects at once, probably in related technologies, so as to maximize potential synergy between them. It was not unusual for Edison to have 30 or more projects proceeding simultaneously, cross-pollinating his ideas, and observations. To accomplish this, Edison used a variety of techniques as discussed below.

Thomas Edison clocking in another 90 week!

Thomas Edison clocking in another 90 week!

Tom worked as hard or harder than his teams, often putting in 90 hours a week of work. No one could accuse “the old man” of goofing off.

Laughter and practical jokes were an encouraged means by which his teams broke through roadblocks or let off steam creatively. [Tom gave as good as he got in the practical joke department!]

Creative tension was inherent in all work as Edison urged his teams to invent something minor every 10 days and something major every 6 months.

New technological and scientific advances were quickly exploited in the labs as his teams tried to create something useful from these breakthroughs. A key resource was the massive company library-where Edison kept his business office. There, 20,000 volumes contained the great scientific and technological achievements of the day, the raw materials for further innovations.

His inventors always had access to new information and plenty of raw materials to support their work. Edison often boasted he could make anything from a woman’s watch to a locomotive in his shops. His large storeroom contained just about everything his inventors would need.

Thomas understood the inevitability and possible serendipity associated with failure; and constantly encouraged his teams to learn from it. His famous line was “fail your way to success!”

To keep projects on track and new products on schedule, the great inventor used timelines, critical path analysis techniques, and exploded parts diagrams to show how assembly should be done in his factories. This was completely consistent with the rise of industrial efficiency models of the early 1900s.

Tom and his “insomniac squad” having a meal after an all-nighter.

Tom and his “insomniac squad” having a meal after an all-nighter.

This all worked quite nicely, as the 250 employees who manned his invention factory, including team leaders, technical experts in physics/chemistry/engineering, and craftsmen produced enough new products to keep over 10,000 employees busy producing and shipping his products all over the world. All this productive activity occurred on about 20 acres of real estate. It was this tremendous leverage he achieved between R&D, new product development, and economic stimulus that propelled many of the nation’s then nascent corporations to develop project management directed R&D organizations-most of which were established between 1895 and about 1920. Edison had set the pace and path for economic progress, a paradigm we and the world still follow faithfully today.

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine“Personally, I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night.”

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Instagram Star Founder – in the Mold of Thomas Edison

In the Internet market, entrepreneurship is alive and well, and increasingly populated with bright, young innovators. This 20-30 year-old crowd, is focused, and edgy about reaching out to new markets. They shape the market while serving it, which seems to be one of their hallmarks … living and thriving with constant change.

Instagram Star Founder - in the Mold of Thomas Edison

Consider Kevin Systrom, a computer “geek” as early as 12, this lanky fellow, soon realized his talents were in shaping ideas and markets, rather than the intricacies of computer science. He took management science and engineering in college; after all, if you are going to build a company …  people, finances, and fund-raising powers the inventive pump of high-tech. Folks like Systrom learn through playful hands-on prototyping, and working with others through various early jobs [for him Google, G-Mail and the forerunner of Twitter] Quickly, young entrepreneurs like him become hungry for practical applications, making real products, ones that often tend to involve a bit of self-indulgence as well.

Systrom figured out how to take a personal passion for photography and make it into something others can enjoy. Hey, if do what you have fun with, you are not really working…are you? His Instagram site is about his love of pictures and social interactions. Instagram is not just about photos per se, but the ability to give those photos a personality as well, perhaps a retro, hip, nostalgic feel. You control the look and feel of the photo—the context through which they are viewed and perceived.

Here is what Wikipedia says about Instagram: “a free photo-sharing program and social network that was launched in October 2010. The service allows users to take a photo, apply a digital filter to it, and then share it with other Instagram users they are connected to on the social network as well as on a variety of social networking services. Instagram currently has 80 million registered users.” Kevin must be doing something right, as his company was sold in April 2012 to Facebook for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock, from which Systrom personally realized about $400 million.

Talking about photos … it is worth noting here that Edison teamed up with George Eastman of Eastman-KODAK fame, another entrepreneur, to make film strips for Edison’s first peep-hole motion picture shows-the original visual nickelodions. From this was launched the modern era of motion pictures.

So much of this Instagram success evokes Thomas Edison, a millionaire in his early 30s, a world-changing “wizard”; a fellow who originally worked as an itinerant telegrapher during the Civil War and applied his love of the technology and problem solving to mankind’s ultimate benefit. Like Systrom and other young entrepreneurs, Edison gave us huge change … recorded sound and motion pictures, the very basis of all smart phones; and the electric utility system to light our way and re-charge our smart phone batteries. Here are Edison’s four rules of business:

  • Think out of the box
  • Be entrepreneurial … take risks
  • Fail your way to success
  • Success demands that you improve your products
Instagram Star Founder - in the Mold of Thomas Edison

Betcha’ Kevin Systrom and his contemporaries have no trouble grasping what Edison meant 125 years ago!

Editor’s Deep Dive

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

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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Inventions Thomas Edison Would Love: Biomass Conversion

Solar energy applications are not just the solar electric panels that convert sunlight to electricity, or the majestic large, spinning, wind turbines we see on the great plains or in offshore clusters. Solar applications also include the use of biomass…..organic materials grown and then processed into fuel or useful products.

Here is what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL] has to say about biomass applications:

  • Biofuels — Converting biomass into liquid fuels for transportation
  • Biopower — Burning biomass directly, or converting it into gaseous or liquid fuels that burn more efficiently, to generate electricity
  • Bioproducts — Converting biomass into chemicals for making plastics and other products that typically are made from petroleum

Biofuels can be used to supplement our energy sources, replace existing petrochemical energy sources, reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy, and reduce the environmental impact/greenhouse gas emissions of petrochemical energy use.

Every time the price of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs. The U.S. military is very interested in alternative fuels — in particular, the wood-based biofuels being researched and produced at the University of Maine. Check out this amazing process.

Professor Clayton Wheeler of U of Maine

Professor Clayton Wheeler of U of Maine

Professor Clayton Wheeler of U of Maine holding a bottle of biofuel made from wood materials. This biofuel can be used as is as a substitute for heating oil or refined a bit more for use as a premium transportation fuel/jet fuel.

It is fascinating to remember Thomas Edison experimented with biomass back in the late 1920s, trying to find common plant materials that could be processed to become a viable substitute for rubber. In his painstaking years of work, Edison and his staff evaluated about 17,000 candidate plant species, to develop a giant cross-bred goldenrod plant that could grow as tall as 12 feet; and whose structure contained about 12% rubber. In 1927, Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation of Fort Myers. Plants were collected in Florida and throughout the southern United States by field collectors. Plants were grown under controlled conditions in Florida and at Edison’s laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey.

Edison in Fort Myers

Edison in Fort Myers in 1931, along with his giant goldenrod plant, later named after him, Solidago edisoniana.

The plant processing equipment Edison used in his West Orange Chemistry Lab to facilitate the extraction of latex rubber from his goldenrod and other candidate plants.

The plant processing equipment Edison used in his West Orange Chemistry Lab to facilitate the extraction of latex rubber from his goldenrod and other candidate plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Deep Dive:

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineThomas Edison said … “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.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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