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Edison’s Struggles Show the Challenge of Innovation

By Michael LeGault, editor   

You may have seen the commercial for a company that helps people get their inventions to market. In it, a middle-aged man looks at the viewer and says, "Snap your fingers and the light comes on--that...

You may have seen the commercial for a company that helps people get their inventions to market. In it, a middle-aged man looks at the viewer and says, “Snap your fingers and the light comes on–that was MY invention.” The one that got a way, in other words.

For most of us, that is indeed as far as our inventions go–our head. I’ve been carrying two or three around with me for years. A repairman I had over to my house recently told me he held ten patents on various electrical/mechanical devices, and that he was certain his next patent, something to do with automotive batteries, was the Big One.

It seems most of us have the inventing spirit, but few actually see their ideas and inventions become a reality in the marketplace. Time and money are the standard explanations for this disconnect. A look at the life of one famous inventor illustrates how arduous the process of invention can be.

Thomas Edison coined the best truism about invention, when he wrote, “There is a wide difference between completing an invention and putting the manufactured article on the market.”


He took his words to heart. No sooner had Edison conceived an invention than he was already considering the problems of producing and selling it, usually before the invention itself had even been perfected.

Many of his inventions were simply improvements on things that were already operational, but cumbersome or impractical. He scored his first success in 1869 with an improvement on the standard stock telegraph tape printer. Western Union paid him $30,000 (a few million in today’s currency) to produce 1,200 of the devices.

But it was with his invention of the first, practical incandescent light bulb that Edison proved his prowess and tenacity as an inventor. Arc lights using two carbon electrodes to create a spark of light had been around for 10 years but were too bright for domestic use. It was a demonstration of a small dynamo at a foundry that sent Edison into a creative flurry to build a workable light bulb. The dynamo was not his invention, but he realized it could be used to carry current into all the offices and apartments in Manhattan. The light literally went on inside Edison’s head.

There were some huge technical hurdles to producing a light bulb for home/office use. Edison experimented for months with different types of filaments, which were all very fragile, of low resistance and usually burned out within a few seconds after applying current. A second problem was evacuating the glass bulb of all oxygen so that the filament wouldn’t oxidize. His first demonstration of one prototype bulb to investors failed when the bulb exploded. One by one Edison solved the problems, finally producing a bulb with a thin carbon filament that stayed lit for about 45 hours. The year was 1878.

Doubters, there were a few. One scientist said Edison was “perpetrating a fraud upon the public”. Edison vowed to build a statue to the man, shone perpetually with one of his lights.

Edison had much work in front of him. He had to basically conceive, invent and manufacture the entire electric industry–commercially workable dynamos, insulated wiring, safety devices, efficient motors for using the electricity, meters to measure electrical consumption, etc. When, at last, 106 lamps were turned on in lower Manhattan on Sept. 3, 1882, it was a world changing event, brought to fruition by the energies of a single man.

A lesson for today? Absolutely. Edison’s search for a practical light bulb was, in the words of one of his biographers, “a bold, even foolhardy plunge into the unknown guided more by overconfidence and a few half-baked ideas than by science.”

So when someone tells you it can’t be done, maybe it’s a sign you’re on to something.


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