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Thomas Edison's Greatest Invention: Innovation Itself?

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By: Jeremy Hsu, InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer
Published: 04/07/2012 09:45 AM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily

Thomas Edison's record as an American inventor seems hard to beat if Hollywood wants a historical hero — he pioneered practical electric lighting, spawned the sound recording industry and created the first commercial system for motion pictures. "The Wizard of Menlo Park" captured the public imagination with his awe-inspiring inventions and swam through a sea of celebrity as easily as Tony Stark, the superhero Iron Man of comics and films.

But Edison's greatest legacy may be as a founder of modern innovation, the process of turning an invention idea into a fully realized and patented commercial product. His early knack for entrepreneurial success gave him the wealth and investor backing to transform small inventor's workshops into the huge research-and-development laboratories of today. He even helped found U.S. military labs such as the Naval Research Laboratory.

"In one sense he represents the common image of the heroic inventor," said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison papers at Rutgers University, not far from where Edison labored in his central New Jersey lab. "But what I think made Edison so successful and significant was that he transformed invention through the R&D laboratories and created a modern style of innovation."

Most of Edison's knowledge came from being home-schooled by his mother and from continuing self-education throughout his life. But he recognized the importance of placing Ph.D. chemists and trained engineers alongside machinists and fellow inventors to realize his creations inside huge labs.

"What Edison does is graft an electrical and chemical lab onto a machine shop," Israel told InnovationNewsDaily. "That's what so important at Menlo Park — he creates a new kind of invention institution."

Edison also quickly learned the business importance of protecting his work. He held an astounding lifetime total of 1,093 patents, a record that held for much of the 20th century.

A driven entrepreneur

The inventor's life success built upon his early experiences with the growing telegraph industry. A teenage Edison telegraphed news headlines about the Civil War battle of Shiloh ahead of scheduled train stops, and sold newspapers to the clamoring crowds at each train station. His later work as a wandering telegraph operator allowed him to begin tinkering with better telegraph technologies.

Edison also made useful contacts with news reporters who worked closely with telegraph operators, Israel explained. Many of the same reporters helped establish his fame as "the Wizard of Menlo Park" — they found him a good storyteller and quite capable of talking up his technological marvels to the public.

The inventor's charisma and personal drive inspired many of his lab employees. Edison could sleep just four or five hours a night and work tirelessly for several days at a time. "He only needed a short catnap and awoke refreshed," Israel said.

But such entrepreneurial drive also consumed Edison's family life, despite the inventor's best efforts to play the devoted husband and father. Edison's first wife, a 16-year-old employee named Mary Stilwell, perplexed him because of her inability to share in his inventive spirit. "My Wife Popsy Wopsy Can't Invent," Edison wrote in his notebook one Valentine's Day. Later, he earnestly tried to reassure his second wife, Mina Miller, that "You & the children and the Laboratory is all my life I have nothing else."

Edison also could show hints of a business-minded pragmatism that came at the expense of personal relationships. One of his business mentors, Western Union president William Orton, said the inventor had "a vacuum where his conscience ought to be," after Edison briefly courted a competitor in the telegraphy business. Still, Edison's charisma kept Orton fond of him even after that event.

Rival inventor heroes

Thomas Edison was turned into the hero of many "Edisonade" science fiction stories at the turn of the century. Yet in recent pop culture stories Edison has played villain more often than hero, in his supposed rivalry with fellow inventor Nikola Tesla. The fanciful 2006 film "The Prestige" shows Edison's hired thugs menacing Tesla, and Edison himself appears as a jealous Tesla rival in the irreverent online series "Drunk History."

In fact, Israel said, historical evidence does not support the idea of a personal rivalry between Edison and Tesla. The Croatian-born Tesla, who was nine years younger, started out working for Edison before going off to develop his alternating current system of power with the Westinghouse Electric company. Westinghouse's AC system eventually beat Edison's direct current system to become the basis for the modern power grid — but not as part of a grand Edison-Tesla battle, Israel said.

"The mythology is that Edison was trying to thwart Tesla by trying to oppose alternating current," he said. "But you'd be hard-pressed to find Tesla's name in the press — it was more about George Westinghouse versus Edison."

The personal relationship between Edison and Tesla remains largely a mystery. ("I don't think they had much of one," Israel said.) Tesla praised Edison in one article written for an engineering journal but later joined other inventors in harshly criticizing him when Edison received all the publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary of the electric lamp.

Edison's stature as "Inventor of the Age" has likely overshadowed many other talented inventors of his time, Israel said. But his impact as a great American inventor seems boundless when considering his ability to transform the imaginative sketches of a Leonardo da Vinci or the patented ideas of a Hedy Lamarr into a disruptive technology.

"Tesla was very ingenious and creative — one of these people developing early ideas around key technologies of today — but not a successful inventor who could actually convert ideas into commercial technology," Israel said. "That's what sets Edison apart from someone like Tesla."

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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