Thomas Edison: The Emergence of R&D

Edison and the Rise of InnovationEdison and the Rise of Innovation” is a newly released book from Sterling Publishing. This article borrows from the book, and discusses a key aspect of Edison’s West Orange Labs-R&D as a powerful force for economic growth. The book is available in Barnes & Noble book stores and on their web site at www.barnesandnoble.com. Bill Gates wrote the foreword to this delightful book.

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As Thomas Edison builds what will become his legendary West Orange Labs (1887), his dream to combine invention and entrepreneurship takes hold. At West Orange, Edison takes his R&D project team concept from Menlo Park, feeds and nourishes it with vitamins, gives it a strong market thrust, and basically transforms R&D from a cottage industry to an industrial powerhouse.

Edison establishes a complex of manufacturing enterprises (about 30 companies, known as Thomas A. Edison Industries) to complement his invention factory, employing over 10,000 people on 23 acres of land. His invention factory employs about 250 experts, technicians, engineers and craftsmen who develop new ideas for the rest of the employees to make and sell. The leverage of R&D to manufacturing is great–for every R&D person employed, Edison realizes 40 manufacturing jobs.

The West Orange Labs complex-home to 10,000+ employees (ca. 1910)

The West Orange Labs complex-home to 10,000+ employees (ca. 1910)

So important is this commercialization of R&D, that between 1895 and 1926 (within Edison’s lifetime) many of the country’s great corporate R&D labs are established-true testimony to the power of commercial R&D. Today, the U.S. spends close to $440 billion a year on R&D in all sectors of the economy, a total greater than the annual revenue of any of America’s largest corporations.

At West Orange, America sets its feet upon the path of technology driven economic growth, our modern conception of progress is forged. Many industrialists come to the site to tour and learn. Edison the entrepreneur is experimenting with streamlining his vertically integrated manufacturing, critical path analysis for improved project management, and better ways to educate employees about building complex products. Henry Ford, an Edison devotee and life-long friend, is watching and learning; and from 1917-1928 he builds his own vertically integrated, mega-monument to economic growth, his famous River Rouge automobile factory, churning out automobiles by the millions.

Thomas Alva Edison and his close team members

Thomas Alva Edison and his close team members

Today, 82 years after his death, Thomas Edison’s accomplishments, processes, and industries established account for about 10% of the U.S. economy. His work, according to the Voice of America is responsible for one-fourth of all the jobs on the planet. West Orange is the harbinger of what would later become the second great wave of commercial R&D, Silicon Valley.

And one more important note. All this cool stuff you hear going on in schools today … STEM … Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math … that is exactly what Edison and his “Muckers” did at West Orange, all day long. Schools are re-discovering Mr. Edison; and a whole new generation of inventors is being inspired. Thanks Tom!

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineThomas Edison said … “The man who doesn’t make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasure in life.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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