Sunday, December 13, 2009

Idea communication: The Edison way

In a previous article we looked at Thomas Edison’s method of innovation. As Edison’s innovation factory churned out incremental and radical innovations, Edison had to communicate his ideas to various stakeholders like the technicians in the factory, investors, patent officers, journalists and of course, potential users. What kind of methods did Edison employ in communicating his ideas? Let’s take a look in this article.

· Sketches: Henry Ford writes in Edison as I know him - If there is anything to be made or an experiment is to be conducted in a certain way, he draws a diagram in such clear, quick fashion that no further explanation is necessary. The speed with which Mr. Edison does all this is remarkable. He sketched the model of his first phonograph in less than five minutes.

· Analogies: We saw how Edison pursued the analogy of subdividing electric light so that it can be used like gas in small units (eventually turned out to be independent bulbs). Note that the analogy was not restricted to technical features alone. Edison established price points for electricity distribution based gas system comparison. On another occasion, Edison wondered, “Can we do to eye, what phonograph did to the ears?” (the innovation he worked on was motion picture camera).

· Use-cases: Edison invented phonograph in 1877. He articulated 10 possible uses of the phonograph in North American Review in 1878. They were: (1) Letter writing / dictation (2) Audio books (speaking to blind) (3) Teaching of elocution (4) Reproduction of music (5) Family record – sayings from members of family (6) Music boxes / toys (7) Clocks announcing going home, going for meals (8) Preservation of language (9) Education (10) Connection with telephone. Note that Edison suspended phonograph for almost 8 years in 1978 to focus on electricity.

· Prototypes: Demonstrating his prototypes was Edison’s pet method of attracting investments and publicity. Here is how he narrates his experience with Phonograph sometime in 1877 - That morning I took it over to New York and walked into the office of the Scientific American, went up to Mr. Beach's desk, and said I had something to show him. He asked what it was. I told him I had a machine that would record and reproduce the human voice. I opened the package, set up the machine and recited, 'Mary had a little lamb,' etc. Then I reproduced it so that it could be heard all over the room. They kept me at it until the crowd got so great Mr. Beach was afraid the floor would collapse; and we were compelled to stop. The papers next morning contained columns. (source: Edison his life and inventions)

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