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Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 184-7 and died on october 18, 1931. He was the last of seven children, and was largely home-schooled and self-educated. He married twice and had six children. He worked first as a telegrapher before becoming an inventor and entrepreneur. The Edison Manufacturing Company submitted 1,093 successful patents to the US patent office. He is credited with having invented the phonograph, motion pictures, a viable incandescent light bulb and practical electrical lighting and distribution system (Israel, 1998). He is an icon that embodies innovation, progress, commercial success, and one who led the world into the modern era.
Since his rise to fame in the 1870s he has been one of history’s most mythologized figures (Millard, 1990). The richness and complexity of his work, combined with the legends that have surrounded it, make Edison’s career an especially challenging puzzle for those who seek to recover the “real” Edison. However, because of the availability of millions of pages of Edison laboratory notebooks, correspondence, and other documents, historians now have a much clearer understanding of Edison’s life and work. If anything, writings based on the Edison papers have only reinforced the remarkable nature of his career; Edison remains a towering figure in the history of modern technological and business development. At the same time, the “new” Edison differs in several significant ways from the Edison of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century hagiography (a worshipful or idealized biography). How he established and operated scores of businesses; how he recruited, motivated, and collaborated with other technologists; how he organized and supervised employees; and how he cultivated and leveraged his own public image-in short, how Edison functioned as a leader-have emerged as central themes of his career.
Edison was issued more than thousand U.S. patents and made major contributions to the development of several of the modern world’s most important industries-telegraphy, telephony, electric light and power, recorded sound (the phonograph), motion pictures, chemical energy storage (batteries)-as well as less sweeping but still notable contributions to the fields of mimeography, railroads, cement, automobiles, ore separation, and others (Friedel & Finn, 1986). His discovery of the socalled Edison effect laid the groundwork for the development of radio. However, Edison was as much an entrepreneur and innovator as he was an inventor. That is, he was centrally occupied not only with creating but also with commercializing. According to many historians of technology, the process of innovation entails both invention and commercial application. This process typically involves applying new ideas to build working prototypes, then (with continual modification) scaling up production for sales. In this way theories, concepts, and designs are first embodied in the physical world, as technology, and then launched in the marketplace, as products. Edison devoted considerable attention to all stages of this process-conceptualization, design, model building, and commercialization-which involved him with a variety of individuals, including scientists and mathematicians, craftsmen and mechanics, investors, politicians, and customers. In his interactions with each kind of stakeholder (a person having an interest in an outcome), Edison exhibited a distinctive and usually quite effective leadership style.
Born on a farm in Milan, ohio, Edison began his professional career as a telegrapher, which gave him a decent income and plenty of mobility. He hung out his shingle as an inventor and began to attract modest corporate capital in Boston during a stint there in 1868-1869 (Friedel & Finn, 1986). His initial work focused on improving telegraph, fire alarm, and facsimile telegraph systems. Edison soon moved to New York City, expanded his work into new areas, and achieved some notable success-along with additional venture capital. In 1876 he opened what he called an “invention factory” in the northeastern New Jersey farm community of Menlo Park. It was a predecessor of the twentieth-century research and development laboratory, an institution devoted to controlling the pace and direction of technological development.
A Leader of Craftsmen
As an inventor, Edison worked much more pragmatically than theoretically-by present-day standards-but this was largely a consequence of the times in which he lived. Edison often relied on scientific research to guide his work in mechanics and electricity but had to rely more on trial and error in the chemical domain (Wachhorst, 1981). Much Edison mythology has been based on the premise that Edison virtually plucked inspiration out of thin air. (Thus, a light bulb illuminating over one’s head became the standard metaphor for the flash of a brilliant idea.) Edison mythology also has been based on the premise that Edison actively spurned the contributions of people formally trained in the natural sciences. Probably the most popular quotation attributed to Edison has been his remark that invention is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. However, at his research facilities at Menlo Park (1876) and West orange, New Jersey (1887), Edison assembled the largest technical library in North America, its sprawling stacks filled with scientific and technical journals (some from Europe), academic books, and patent reports. Francis Upton, one of Edison’s chief collaborators in electric lighting, was a brilliant mathematician educated at the Andover Academy, Bowdoin College, and Princeton University who also attended lectures by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz at Berlin University. In short, Edison exploited theoretical understandings as best he could; but the ends he sought quite often outran the limits of theory, forcing him and his researchers into uncharted terrain, where laborious trial-and-error protocols were the only practical solution (Conot, 1979).
The staff of craftsmen, mechanics, and model builders at Menlo Park grew to sixty-four by 1880. Later, at West orange, Edison worked with hundreds of specialists in the main laboratory and in the large phonograph works as well as in smaller laboratories devoted to electricity, chemistry, chemical storage, and metallurgy (Conot, 1979). These men (as was common at the time, Edison’s operations employed no women as skilled craftspeople or professionals) looked to Edison for direction and inspiration, and “the old Man” did not disappoint. Edison flitted from workstation to workstation, giving directions, sounding out ideas, and proposing solutions. It was a two-way interaction, but Edison retained the clear leadership role. Although assistants exercised a high degree of autonomy, Edison-by dint of his enormous talent and creativity-usually took the lead in both defining and solving problems. When he departed the laboratory for more than a couple of days, work slowed noticeably without his direction.
Edison defined the work ethic within his laboratories by example. A “workaholic” (to use modern parlance) under normal conditions, he worked ceaselessly when in the crucial stage of a project, sneaking short naps on virtually any horizontal surface, and expected his assistants to keep pace. The long absences from home strained his associates and took a heavy toll on Edison’s personal life (especially his first marriage, which was to Mary Stilwell). Even so, the work culture among Edison and his “muckers” fostered a sense of camaraderie, much like Edison had experienced among the telegraphers and machinists of his young adulthood. It was an informal, masculine culture in which colorful stories and off-color jokes were valued as much as hard work and independent initiative. Edison’s crews were kept within loose bounds and motivated, not by bureaucratic managerial systems, but by their enthusiasm for working with the greatest mucker of them all.
Managing Factories, Investors, and Celebrity
Even though inventive activity gave Edison the greatest intellectual satisfaction, he was also determined to profit from the fruits of his creativity (Conot, 1979). He founded multiple corporations in most of the areas of his research to produce the technological components and systems that flowed from his laboratories. In the field of electric light and power, for instance, the Edison Electric Light Company controlled the rights to several hundred patents that together comprised the “Edison system.” Major system components were manufactured by the Edison Electric Lamp Company, the Edison Company for Isolated Lighting, the Edison Machine Works, and the Edison Tube Company. Edison Electric Light Company, in turn, licensed to a variety of local Edison illuminating companies in which Edison held a financial interest.
Throughout his career Edison had to court investors to keep the capital flowing in. To launch his career as an independent inventor, he garnered the support of major telegraph companies. Leading financiers such as J. Pierpont Morgan (the first North American to install electric lights in his home) and Henry Villard were strong supporters of Edison’s electric light and power endeavors. Although Edison came through with promised innovations much of the time, he also displayed a propensity toward overly optimistic projection. In September 1878, for instance, he announced that he had solved the incandescent light challenge, although more than a year passed before he produced a practicable lamp, and it wasn’t until 1882 that the first lighting station went on line, at Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, New York. Edison was supremely confident, but he also recognized-and cultivated-the art of posturing for the press and for his financial backers.
Journalists were eager to comply. Edison’s reputation began to soar in the 1870s, thanks in large measure to his successes with the phonograph. The device’s power to capture and reproduce voices and music awed and enchanted the press and the public (Conot, 1979). For the most part thereafter, journalists uncritically reported Edison’s claims and reveled in his eccentricities, a fact that Edison exploited. He was happy to play the part of the homespun genius who napped under his desk and was ready to take on virtually any technological challenge. on one occasion Edison jokingly claimed to have invented a machine that would feed the world. The news services ran the story straight, and millions of newspaper readers found it perfectly credible.
In spite of his celebrity Edison’s relations with his financial backers often were strained. Although he was extraordinarily foresighted in identifying areas of opportunity, at times he proved to be stubbornly committed to what proved to be technological and entrepreneurial dead ends (Millard, 1990). Edison’s electrical systems operated on direct current (DC), but when George Westinghouse and others introduced alternating current (AC) systems that were more economical for long-distance transmission and distribution, Edison dug in his heals and pushed DC even harder. AC ultimately prevailed. Similarly, Edison never succeeded in developing a commercially viable electric vehicle; he failed to envision the commercial possibilities of recorded sound; and in the 1890s he spent most of his fortune on a behemoth electromagnetic ore separation gambit that ultimately failed.
Nor did he fully control the interests that bore his name, especially as the scale of his various manufacturing enterprises grew large. By the 1880s, Edison’s manufacturing and utility interests were simply too numerous and geographically dispersed for him to play much of a direct role in management (Millard, 1990). In 1892, his electrical interests were merged with those of Thomson-Houston to form General Electric, but Edison played a marginal role in the merger itself and in the company it created. He was by then one of the most renowned and admired figures in the world, his reputation on par with those of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. In his twilight years Edison sustained his image through interviews and historical reenactments. Unlike many who attained his level of celebrity, however, Edison demonstrated few ambitions as a social philosopher.
Edison thus devoted much of his professional life-especially after opening the West orange facilities in 1887-to founding and operating manufacturing facilities. Historians continue to debate how effective he was as an industrialist, although there is little question that he was strong, if not exceptional, as a businessman, especially given the range and complexity of his various enterprises. Edison’s greatest business strength was in marketing-in both perceiving and shaping demand for mass consumer products.
However, in his own day and today, Edison chiefly stands as an example of a heroic inventor and, more broadly, a heroic U.S. citizen. His lack of much formal education, his strong practical bent, his independent habits, his apparent willingness to take on virtually any technical challenge-all resonated deeply with a nation that was becoming more and more bureaucratic, scientific, and professionalized yet feeling ambivalent about the transition. Edison left an enormous legacy. He was simultaneously a one-of-a-kind “wizard” and an everyman who aspired to greatness through hard work and creativity. In the popular imagination he served as a great inspiration more than a leader. However, those who explore the new Edison scholarship will find many valuable leadership lessons about how to organize and motivate creative teams, how to move technological ideas into the marketplace, and how to cultivate a potent public image.
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