Edison’s Desk: What did Thomas Edison do at work?

An ongoing series about Thomas A. Edison’s desk, a popular and sought-out artifact at Edison’s historical laboratories where he ran his businesses and invented from for 20+ years, today known as the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The desk was frozen in time the day that Edison died, left untouched as a symbol of historic and scientific innovation for hundreds of years to come. As one of the most awe-inspiring stops of the lab’s tour, it leaves visitors with many questions about Edison’s work and life which we will answer in this series.

Thomas Edison’s many titles from inventor to chemist to businessman are inspiring but also beg the question – What did he actually do at work? How did he get it all done in 24 hours of a day? Well, he seldom worked alone…almost always in teams and partnerships. He spent lots of time in leadership and management, as much as actually inventing. With Edison the lone-wolf inventor starts disappearing in industry.

Like any good R&D organization, a capable staff keeping project managers aware of what is going on is indispensable. Here Thomas Edison confers with staff at his desk!

From his pinnacle roll-top desk, Edison managed his conglomerate corporation of 30 companies, including a nearby sprawling chemical manufacturing complex, all of which comprised a total staff in excess of 10,000 people. In addition, he led 30-40 product development teams in his famed invention factory as they turned raw ideas into salable products. His invention factory leadership is a powerful lesson that endures to modern times, for this same team-based problem solving comes down to us in today’s commercial R&D labs. It is likely the greatest and most economically significant of Edison’s inventions!

Think about how the many meetings with staff around his desk helped him focus on the synergies between products under development, operational problems to be solved, creative brainstorming for marketing, and branding of products that were rolling out of his on-site manufacturing buildings. The invention factory occupied 1 to 2 acres of land at the famed West Orange site. There were another 25 acres of manufacturing and shipping facilities to contend with, the problems of which inevitably found their way to Mr. Edison. 

Talented technicians and engineers came from all over the world for a chance to work for the greatest inventor ever. They knew he made it possible for inventors to have all the resources necessary to create new things. Another one of Edison’s jobs that he attended to at his desk was making sure that these inventors had a superbly stocked inventory of raw materials and tools in the well-stocked storeroom of his factory. 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.

Part of the Thomas Edison’s large store room at his West Orange Invention Factory

To think…All this ideated from an old oak desk, crammed with the notes and ideas of a restless, curious mind!


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