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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