Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thomas Edison, the father of systematic innovation: my favorite quotes

I consider Thomas Edison the father of “systematic innovation”. Edison founded the first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park in 1876 which he named “Invention Factory”. However, in today’s context, the name is a misnomer. What Edison started was actually an “innovation factory”. In the next few articles I will articulate my understanding of how Edison’s innovation factory worked. Let me start with a few of his quotes which I like and which I believe depict underlying principles of his method of innovation.

1. Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility and utility is success: This shows that Edison was first an innovator and then an inventor. Utility i.e. practical value of the things produced was of high importance to Edison. He used inventions and patents as a means to protect his product’s position from competition. As it turned out, patents alone are not the best form of competitive advantage. His biographers Dyer and Martin write - Edison confesses that he has never made a cent out of his patents in electric light and power—in fact, that they have been an expense to him. However, I believe that the 12,000 odd shares he got in General Electric after the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson Houston in 1892 does indirectly show the value he received for his patents.

2. Great ideas originate in the muscles: Edison believed that experimentation was at the heart of innovation process. Ideas by themselves do not mean much. In fact, more refined ideas come about when you start experimenting with the ideas in crude form. Experimentation is hard work and perhaps that is why Edison said this.

3. Hell, there are no rules here. We are trying to accomplish something: Edison called his workers “muckers” – a word borrowed from British working class and meant “to fool around”. Similar to 3M, which called its innovators, “tinkerers”. Edison would set the broad direction of the experiments and assign it to a “gang” (his term). However, the “muckers” would “fool around” with the parameters the way they liked.

4. I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work: Edison distinguished between negative result of an experiment and failed experiment. Every new negative result means a new learning about what doesn’t work in what context. Edison would number all his experiments. For example, in the spring of 1884, he supervised 2,774 lamp experiments at Menlo Park.

5. I start where the last man left off: In 1878, Prof. Barker of University of Pennsylvania suggested to Edison that he should subdivide the electric light so it could be got like small units like gas. Edison says, “On my return home I started my usual course of collecting every kind of data. This time it was about gas: I bought all the transactions of the gas-engineering societies, et cetera, all the back volumes of gas journals, et cetera. Having obtained all the data, and investigated gas jet distribution in New York by actual observations, I made up my mind that the problem of the subdivision of the electric current could be solved and made commercial.” (source: “Edison as I know him” by Henry Ford)

6. To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk: As mentioned in the wikipedia, Edison’s laboratory had "eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell ...cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores ..." and the list goes on. Does your office have any pile of junk?

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