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How Edison Are You?
July 29, 2008 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Thomas A. Edison did not simply invent; he created the invention industry. He not only inspired the American Industrial Revolution, he provided the model for modern R&D concepts. Perhaps his greatest success beyond his legacy of innovation and invention is the introduction of team-based research. The Edison Innovation Foundation is using Edison's Invention Factory to educate the next generation of inventors.
posted by netbros (23 comments total)

 
Heh. Thomas A. Edison did not simply invent, sometimes he stole, and sometimes he just crushed the competition with dirty tricks.
posted by Artw at 10:01 AM on July 29, 2008 [5 favorites]


I hear Thomas A. Edison drove an ice-cream truck decorated with human skulls.
posted by isopraxis at 10:10 AM on July 29, 2008


Can I have a Tesla Invention Factory?
posted by starman at 10:12 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I hear Thomas A. Edison drove an ice-cream truck decorated with human skulls.

Heh. Maybe too far… but he definitely had a bit of a “There Will Be lood” like competition in him.
posted by Artw at 10:14 AM on July 29, 2008


Thomas A. Edison drove an ice-cream truck decorated with his own vomit, which still contained recognizable chunks of Nikola Tesla's soul.

DC power, my ass!
posted by Afroblanco at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2008


Thomas A. Edison did not simply invent,

He tinkered, experimented, and through exhaustive trial and mostly error proved that he could ignore the counsel of science and mathematics and still make some things work.
posted by three blind mice at 10:40 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can I have a Tesla Invention Factory?

No, on account of the death rays.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:41 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


He was an innovator in the area of elephant electrocution.
posted by Muddler at 10:41 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


And then he'd phone the elephant up and try to chat to it.

Is this a bit too much like one of those wikipedia pages with a tiny bity of bio and then a big huige long "Criticisms " section?
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on July 29, 2008


I wonder how difficult it would be to get "Criticisms" changed to "Snark" in the Wikipedia guidelines.
posted by bjrn at 11:10 AM on July 29, 2008


Wah Wah he electrocuted an elephant! That's bad! Here is the deal children: in this life you can either be Great or you can be good, but you can't be both. You can be neither though. So all of you have either chosen to be good or to be neither, but do you know what Thomas Alva Edison did? He chose to be Great and he didn't care how many goddamn elephants he had to electrocute in order to do so. So go cry for your electrocuted elephants and pat yourself on the back for how good you are, and thank god that Thomas Edison electrocuted that elephant or else people would be seeing how good you are by candlelight.
posted by ND¢ at 11:36 AM on July 29, 2008


Snark aside, Edison and his "Idea Factories" made a number of very useful contributions to the development of the modern research laboratory, though sometimes the innovations happened despite Edison, not because of him. People make fun of Edison's trial-and-error methodologies, but they did lead to some useful results.

Nikola Tesla was famously quoted saying, "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search... I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor."

That's all well and good if you're a once-in-a-century mad genius like Nikola Tesla, but most people aren't. Edison's strategy of putting a bunch of reasonably smart people in a building with bits of every material known to man and seeing what they come up with was adapted to Edison's less-brilliant abilities, but had the effect of democratizing research via brute force -- and allowing innovation without relying on finding a bunch of people like Tesla. (It might also be worth noting that trying to manage people like Tesla is like herding cats.)

Notably, this was how Edison happened on the carbonized bamboo he used for lightbulb filaments. It was something only Edison could have done, because even if you knew the science, you still had to find the material. It's not glamorous, but anyone who's worked in a modern genetics lab will probably agree that the brute force approach is not completely without merit, even today. As with most things, it depends on context.

The second major contribution Edison made -- which he also gets criticized for, and sometimes not without reason -- was his ability to commercialize. Again, because he wasn't the greatest scientist in the world, he compensated with his talents as a businessman. He aggressively patented and marketed the things he did invent. That's significant: it focused his research on applied rather than theoretical uses, and on an invention's ultimate benefit to the public. That created stronger incentives to research, it encouraged investment because the work could be monetized, and it focused innovations on utility rather than theory.

The comparison between Tesla and Edison is informative here, too -- people often lament that fact that Edison and others "stole" Tesla's inventions, but it's also worth asking whether those neat things Tesla invented would have ever seen the light of day if someone hadn't forced them into the market (and paid him afterwards, much as he complained about people poaching his ideas). Frequently, Tesla couldn't be bothered to build his inventions before moving on to the next cool thing, let alone patent or market them. Call it a drawback of being able to design everything in your head.

Much of the Tesla mystique is based on brilliant inventions that still aren't understood, because he never explained them to anyone. It makes for great myth, but at the end of the day it underscores the fact that was people like Edison that actually made most of Tesla's inventions useful to the public.

The other lasting contribution of the "Idea Factories" was their impact on management, and that wasn't really due to Edison, but it was due to his success. He was always a pretty horrible manager, because he was the sort of guy who liked to meddle in the labs and do things himself. But eventually he got so old and made so much money that he had to give some of his labs over to others to run, and some of those people eventually turned out to be decent middle managers. They organized the labs, systematized the research methods, and basically rationalized the processes.

It was that process that provided the final bridge between the "Idea Factories" and modern research laboratories like 3M (well, that and the military-industrial complex) -- they adopted those methods and picked up where Edison left off. But Edison deserves credit for carrying the torch as far as he did. He certainly wasn't a saint, but he also doesn't deserve all the criticism he tends to get nowadays.
posted by spiderwire at 11:50 AM on July 29, 2008 [6 favorites]


Edison's strategy of putting a bunch of reasonably smart people in a building with bits of every material known to man and seeing what they come up with was adapted to Edison's less-brilliant abilities, but had the effect of democratizing research via brute force -- and allowing innovation without relying on finding a bunch of people like Tesla.

Worked for Microsoft.....wait......
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:54 AM on July 29, 2008


Seriously though, the image of Edison as an inventor is one of the more despicable lies in modern US hagiography. He invented next to nothing, and what little he did invent he did by dint of sheer ignorant jerking around rather than anything resembling intelligence. As Tesla said, if Edison had thought a bit more he wouldn't have to sweat so much.

What Edison *DID* was, as the poster comments, invent the system of hiring real inventors, stealing their ideas, and claiming them as his own.

There's also the issues of his thuggery. It is well established that Edison hired gangs of thugs to smash nickelodeons, built and designed around concepts other than the ones he patented, because the owners wouldn't pay him "royalties". And, regardless of the patent situation, no US law has ever granted a patent holder permission to physically destroy devices he believes to violate his patents.

And then there's the fact that he cheated Tesla out of $50k, a not inconsiderable sum back then, claiming that his promise to pay that sum on completion of a particular task was a joke.
posted by sotonohito at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


Notably, this was how Edison happened on the carbonized bamboo he used for lightbulb filaments. It was something only Edison Swan could have done, because even if you knew the science, you still had to find the material.
FTFY.
posted by scruss at 1:44 PM on July 29, 2008


(a) Edison probably got his idea from Swan, but the bamboo filaments Edison used were a significant improvement over other carbon filaments because of the way the fibers were aligned. It's a rather famous patent case. (see here)

(b) Many people contributed to the development of the incandescent bulb besides Swan. (see here)

(c) It's irrelevant anyway, because most of the patents expired before the bulbs could be deployed. Edison deserves credit -- again -- for commercializing the invention. (see first link)
posted by spiderwire at 2:23 PM on July 29, 2008


and thank god that Thomas Edison electrocuted that elephant or else people would be seeing how good you are by candlelight.

Oh for the love of... I really hope that was sarcasm, otherwise it's the dumbest and most ill-informed thing I've read on Mefi in recent memory. Your utterly retarded and childish musings on the nature of TEH GREATNESS aside, you apparently don't even know WHY Edison electrocuted the elephant. The reason he electrocuted the elephant was to "prove" that Tesla and Westinghouse's alternating current was "unsafe" compared to his direct current, in order to discredit AC to his advantage. The invention of the electric chair also arose out of the Edison/Westinghouse AC/DC rivalry. POP QUIZ, HOTSHOT: what sort of current do the electrical outlets in your house put out? I don't know about you, but everywhere else in the world, the answer is alternating current. Therefore, Edison electrocuted the elephant in a useless marketing stunt to "prove" something that would work to Edison's benefit, but that was totally wrong (DC is only effective over very short wire runs, which is why consumer electronics and the like use DC wall adapters). Therefore, it's just another of the myriad reasons why Edison was an asshole.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:53 PM on July 29, 2008


Thomas A. Edison did not simply invent, sometimes he stole, and sometimes he just crushed the competition with dirty tricks.

So the Bill Gates of his day then... though I don't think Bill's electrocuted an elephant. Yet.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:57 PM on July 29, 2008


Wrong DecemberBoy. Electricity was only invented when Edison was able to cause lightning to flow down a kite, through an elephant, and into a light bulb. Topsy died for your sins ability to read in bed. Also I don't have AC or DC. I think I have a heat pump.
posted by ND¢ at 6:35 PM on July 29, 2008


Edison had a record label, the first record label, which started out releasing cylinders. But Edison had really bad taste in music. He was a stuffy, ignorant elitist who hated "jungle music" and all that, so his label was predictably pretty boring. At least, that's my understanding. It's interesting to read about these earliest years of recorded and mass-produced sound, though. As advertising for his players, they'd set up phonograph machines in theaters as audiences watched and heard this new marvel of technology! Read a little about it here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:45 PM on July 29, 2008


Funny, I always thought that there wasn't any way possible one man was singlehandedly responsible for so many crucial inventions. After highschool and a long enough hiatus from those terribly biased textbooks, I started to encounter other scientists names from other countries attributed to those same inventions. I wanted to post an Askme question about the man and the myth but I was afraid of looking naiive and being subject to ridicule from a huge backlash.

From what I understand about innovation today, it requires focused study, specialisation and, a climate of necessity and other market forces. No way in hell. Such a level of expertise so that the most capable of people would manage at the very most two fields. Naturaly supicious, I sensed hubris and nationalism. People get defensive about those things so I decided against posting, Didn't think I would see it in a thread though.
posted by Student of Man at 11:43 PM on July 29, 2008


Okay, there is a lot of misinformation and half-truths in this thread about Edison stealing inventions and Tesla and alternating currents and whatnot, and we need to realize that kids read the internet and might get a mixed-up view of history from us throwing around inaccurate information carelessly, so I just wanted to set the record straight about what happened between Edison, Tesla and Topsy the elephant.

People say that Edison was not much of an inventor, which is only partly true. He only had one successful experiment in his life, and that was to grant super-intelligence to an animal. That animal was Topsy the elephant. Edison was never able to repeat the experiment and grant intelligence to any other animal, and Topsy was not interested in helping him with that field of research, so Edison was forced to give up actual science and spend his time assisting Topsy in his experiments with an amazing new power source that Topsy discovered: electricity. Through this relationship, which went on for over ten years of almost constant companionship, Edison and Topsy became best friends. It was Topsy who invented the incandescent light bulb and modern electricity, but Edison took credit for it, betraying his best friend and breaking Topsy's heart. Topsy was so angry about Edison's theft that he killed several men in a fit of rage, including one of Edison's henchmen that tried to feed him a poisoned cigarette in order to shut him up. Immediately following these deaths, the big science competition was scheduled at the World's Fair. Edison's major rival was Tesla, who was not actually a scientist at all, but an alchemist and powerful telepath. Mankind was at a crossroads at that time and the big science competition was being used as a test to determine which road humanity would take. Tesla advocated a society based on magick and witchcraft, and powered by fire as its main energy source. Edison (with Topsy pulling his strings, despite their recent feud) was in favor of a society grounded in science and reason and with electricity as its energy source. To make the competition more tense, both Edison and Tesla were in love with the same woman: Amelia Earhart. She had stood by Edison while he ignored her to pursue his inventions, the whole time encouraging him to give up the glamorous life of science, but upon learning that he was a fraud and that Topsy was the real inventor, she left him for Tesla. Both men knew that the winner of the big science competition would be the one that Amelia would end up with. Not only that, but whomever could sway the judges (Teddy Roosevelt, the great Indian warrior Tecumseh, and Henry Ford) that their energy source (and by extension their design for society) was better, would win and the world would fully embrace that view of the way the world should be and erase the other from the history books, and either all the unicorns or all the Rotarians would be immediately killed. Tesla went first, and to prove the power of fire, destroyed the evil citadel of Chicago with magic flame, thereby freeing America from the domination of the Carnegies and opening their repositories of secret knowledge, that they kept in buildings all over the country, to the public at large. Edison knew that, fraud that he was, he could never top that. Tesla, as an attempt to twist the knife even more and savor his victory over his greatest rival, offered to concede to Edison on one condition: if his power source, electricity, could kill an elephant; the man-killer elephant Topsy. Tesla knew all about Topsy being the one who actually invented the light bulb and all about the bond that he and Edison shared, and he knew Edison could never kill him, and so he would have to concede. Edison then did what made him a great man, and what made the world the way it is today: he looked into the eyes of his best friend, his partner, his only proof that he was a great inventor; he looked into the eyes of the only being on Earth that truly understood him, eyes that silently spoke of all the great things that they had done together, all the breakthroughs they had worked on, all that they had shared, and Edison shot 10,000 volts of electricity right through Topsy's heart. Edison then held Topsy's great ivory foot while he died. Obviously, Edison won the competition, the unicorns were killed, the Rotarians rejoiced and were given reign over all local government, all the candles were replaced with light bulbs, the books of sorcery replaced with science textbooks and the griffins replaced with automobiles, but Edison was unable to enjoy his success. Amelia could not be with the man who had killed his best friend in cold blood, even if it was done to change the world. She flew off on the last of the griffins and was never heard from again. Edison spent his remaining years alone, always ruthlessly pursuing money that never made him happy, and trying through the now powerless methods of seances and trances to contact either Topsy or Amelia, no one is really sure which.

And that is the real story of Edison, Tesla and Topsy the elephant.
posted by ND¢ at 8:13 AM on July 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


Unfortunately for humanity, the electrocution of Topsy awakened the Elephant Collective and turned them against humanity in an apoplectic rage. Some theorize that Topsy's spirit was released into the aether, like Xenu, and even today it directs the Elephants against their human oppressors.
posted by spiderwire at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2008


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