Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2010

The Inventor

Although Thomas Edison created the technologies behind three enormous 21st century industries — electrical power, recorded music and movies — his greatest invention may have been the modern method of inventing. He basically came up with the contemporary system of research and development. Edison was not the lone genius tinkering in his garage (the model for that American archetype is Ben Franklin) but someone who gathered around him a team of innovative scientific minds. Edison's laboratories were the forerunners of the interactive technological think tanks of Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Yet for all his scientific gifts, he was no Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He once said, "Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent." But Edison, unlike Jobs or Gates, had no real feel for what the public wanted or how to convert his discoveries into products that might sell. It took him years to understand that the phonograph was not a business tool but an entertainment breakthrough. He helped create movies but resisted the idea that people might want to go into a theater to watch one.

We chose Edison for this year's history issue because we need his example now more than ever. Though we live in a time of great innovation, the U.S. is in danger of losing its pre-eminence in science and technology. American investment in research and development has not increased as a percentage of GDP since the mid-1980s, while the government's share has been declining. And this at a time when China is rapidly increasing its commitment to R&D. The U.S. was once among the leading nations in the ratio of science and engineering grads to its college-age population. Now it ranks near the bottom of the 23 nations that collect such data. We hope that Edison's story might not only stimulate innovation but also inspire more young Americans to study science and engineering.

The package was edited by contributor Richard Lacayo and designed by Emily Crawford; photo editor Crary Pullen and intern Vaughn Wallace combed through hundreds of images of Edison and his inventions.

The National Conference on Volunteering and Service — the world's largest gathering of volunteer and service leaders from the nonprofit, government and corporate sectors — is taking place in New York City June 28-30. It's appropriate to host it there, given Mayor Mike Bloomberg's national leadership on service and his launching of the Cities of Service coalition, a bipartisan group of mayors from all across the country who are working to find innovative ways to use service to help their cities. As part of our continuing commitment to national service, Time supports the convening of this year's conference, which comes at a critical moment for the U.S. At a time of economic difficulty, many nonprofit organizations face increased demands and declining resources. The conference itself will become a resource for how to better use service to solve the nation's most vexing problems.