Life Lessons from Thomas Alva Edison

With technology and innovation playing a bigger role in the US economy, the life of Thomas Alva Edison takes on new meaning. Edison held 1,093 patents – more than any other individual in US history. His invention of so many things – including the phonograph, electric light bulb and motion picture camera – is still the standard by which all inventors compete. The lessons of Edison’s life can suggest to us all how we can make the most profitable use of our talents and time.

SELF-EDUCATION

Edison had an incredible amount of curiosity and eagerness to learn. He only had a few months of elementary school before his formal education ended, but his mother, a former teacher, continued his schooling at home. The love of reading and knowledge that Edison learned from her continued throughout his life.

Edison recalled, “My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly, and as this opened up a great world of literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training.”

Lesson: Education is an attitude…not just an acquisition.

USING TIME WISELY

Edison’s education did not stop when he went to work at age 12 selling candy and newspapers at the railroad. When the train was laid over in Detroit, he raced to the public library to read for a few hours.

While working on the train, Edison also took the opportunity to study business practices. He soon discovered that by wiring ahead to the next train station that there was news about a Civil War battle, he could increase the sales – and price – of his papers when he arrived. He started his own newspaper that featured news and gossip about the railroad and the towns along the line.

Edison printed his newspaper in the baggage car. He also set up a small chemistry laboratory in the car and spent his remaining free time conducting experiments described in a chemistry textbook.

Lesson: Lack of time and space doesn’t have to stop you from doing what is important.

PERSISTENCE

When Edison made his famous statement that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, he wasn’t joking. When he set out to develop a new device, he never gave up. If one approach failed, he would try another…and another…and another…until he succeeded. In the early 1900s, Edison set his lab staff to work to develop a new storage battery. After testing a huge number of possible compounds – 50,000, by one account – one of his workers asked the great inventor if he was discouraged by so many failures and the lack of results.

Edison’s response: “Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

Lesson: Failure is a state of mind…if you approach it positively, it’s just a learning experience along the road to success.

TAKING THE BROAD VIEW

Edison had to focus on the finest details as he perfected his many inventions. But despite his focus on detail, he never lost sight of the big picture. Some examples of his broad vision:

Commercial vision. After four years as a roving telegraph operator, Edison applied for and received his first patent in 1869, when he was only 22. It was for an electric vote recorder. When nobody wanted to buy one, he resolved that he would never try to invent anything unless he could identify a commercial demand for it.

Industrial lab. Within a few years, Edison had earned enough money to build a machine shop where he could manufacture the various improved telegraphs and other machines he constructed. He soon realized that he would not be satisfied with his life just as a successful manufacturer – he had too many ideas and knew he could not develop them all by himself.

That problem led him to conceive of one of the greatest inventions – a major laboratory with state-of-the-art chemical and electrical equipment and a skilled staff of expert technicians and scientists, all dedicated to developing new profit-making devices. In short, Edison invented an “invention factory.”

Competition. Edison realized that in a competitive world, it was not enough just to make a good product. He kept making minor improvements to everything he invented. And even after mastering one way to do something, he continued to search for other better ways.

Electric light. Edison was not the only inventor who was trying to develop the electric light at the time. But he was the only one with the vision and financial backing to solve the practical problems of creating a world lit by electricity. This vision involved developing not just a superior light bulb but a whole system that included improved generating and distribution equipment.

Example: Edison first made an intensive study of the well-established gas-lighting industry. He decided that his system would be more acceptable to the public if he developed an underground transmission system – parallel to that used for piping gas – to avoid adding to the tangle of overhead wires from telegraph and telephone poles that are beginning to disturb the public.

Lesson: To be a winner, you have to do more than simply keep your eye on the ball. You have to understand the rules…and the forces that have an impact on your work.

~contributed by Dr. Paul Israel

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