The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison

Historians, sorting through a treasure trove of Edison's papers, are discovering revealing details that enrich our portrait of one of America's most accomplished inventors

On New Year's Day, 1871, more than three decades before the Wright brothers' historic flight, Edison speculated that "a Paines engine can be so constructed of steel & with hollow magnets . . . and combined with suitable air propelling apparatus wings . . . as to produce a flying machine of extreme lightness and tremendous power." "Discovery," begins an entry dated May 26, 1877. "If you look very closely at any printed matter so that the print is greatly blurred and you see double images of the type . . . one of the double images is always blue or ultra violet=" "Glorious= Telephone perfected this morning 5 AM," he confidently proclaimed in a notebook entry two months later. "Articulation perfect."

Not all his ideas reached fruition, of course. His flying machine was never mentioned again. Nor does anything appear to have come of the blue-violet optical effect that he found so captivating. As for his "perfected" telephone, it turned out to have numerous flaws that required another nine months to iron out.

Between inventive flurries Edison's mind seems to have wandered, as evidenced by pages decorated in half a dozen florid styles of calligraphy. Occasionally he even jotted down a poem. Here is a notebook sample from the mid-1870s:

A yellow oasis in hell= premeditated stupidity= A phrenological idol. The somber dream of the grey-eyed Corsican A Brain so small that an animalcule went to view it with a compound microscope. . . .

Edison's genius is all the more remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of his unexceptional childhood. Born in 1847, he was raised in Port Huron, Michigan, by parents with no special mechanical bent. His mother, a former schoolteacher, provided him with a few years of instruction at home. His father, a jack-of-all-trades who tried his hand at everything from real-estate speculation to running a small grocery store, was also highly literate and had a collection of books that young Tom eagerly consumed. In his early teens the youth began reading science books that described chemistry experiments. He had a job selling newspapers and candy to passengers on the Grand Trunk Railway between Port Huron and Detroit, and during breaks from work he tried out some of these experiments in a baggage car.

Later in his teens he received a more thorough grounding in the rudiments of what would soon be his trade while hanging around railroad yards, newspaper offices, and machine shops, and working in a jeweler's shop and various telegraph offices. On these jobs he was exposed to lathes and various precision tools, clockwork and printing equipment, and a wide assortment of telegraphy instruments, which he studied and experimented with during his spare time.

By his early twenties Edison, moonlighting as an inventor, had totted up enough successes to win lucrative research contracts from Western Union and other prominent firms, giving him the confidence to strike out on his own. But he never fit the popular stereotype of the reclusive nineteenth-century inventor, struggling alone in a garret. From the start collaboration was critical to his success. Indeed, one of Edison's greatest accomplishments was the invention of an entirely new institution--the independent industrial-research laboratory, or what he affectionately called his "invention factory."

At his first large independent laboratory, in Menlo Park, and later at facilities in West Orange, Edison kept a well-stocked chemistry lab and a machine shop under one roof--a considerable novelty for that period. He also surrounded himself with a core group of half a dozen or more assistants. A few were university-educated men specially chosen because of their expertise in fields in which Edison felt himself to be deficient (mathematics was one). His intimate working relationships with the mechanic and experimenter Charles Batchelor, who assisted him over much of his career; with Francis Upton, a major collaborator on electric lighting; and with the electrical engineer Arthur Kennelly--to mention only a few of his closest associates--have long been appreciated by scholars. But the new research into Edison's papers shows that Edison's talent for motivating people extended well beyond this elite inner circle--a finding that may contain an important lesson for the entrepreneurial research-and-development firms that are the modern-day incarnations of Edison's vision.

Everyone--from his closest lieutenants to the cadre of skilled workers who operated his facilities--was encouraged to jot down diagrams and ideas. Particularly good ideas would be initialed by the experimenter in charge of the project and then developed further by the group, making it impossible to assign the credit for an invention to any one creator. "One of Edison's greatest overlooked talents," the historian Greg Field argues, "was his ability to assemble teams and set up an organizational structure that fostered many people's creativity."

This is not to imply that Edison's opinion carried no more weight than that of any other collaborator. A large, burly figure with piercing eyes and a bristling intolerance for laziness, he was very much the commander leading the charge for innovation. Typically he would surge forth on his own course of research, dashing off ideas and conducting experiments seemingly as fast as they came to mind. Once the groundwork for an invention had been laid, he would leave the details to others. The frequent notes of assistants duly recorded the master's advice: "Mr Edison says the temp is to[o] high." "Edison says this is good brick."

In addition to tapping the creative juices of his staff, Edison was knowledgeable about the research of competitors. Contrary to public perception, he almost never worked on any invention that wasn't already being pursued by several other people. What set him apart from his peers was his knack for transforming those ideas into practical results.

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