Business: The Quintessential Innovator

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Where are you, Edison, now that we need you?

He was an odd sort of hero. A millionaire who often lived like a bum, sleeping in a closet with his clothes on—because he believed that taking them off promoted insomnia—and spitting on the floor even in his cherished laboratories. A picturesque swearer who hired assistants whom George Bernard Shaw called "sensitive, cheerful and profane; liars, braggarts and hustlers." A would-be tycoon so crotchety and bullheaded that he could give little credit to the ideas of others; so inept in business matters that he lost control of the immensely profitable companies he founded. An incurable show-off and self-promoter who circulated so many myths about his personality and accomplishments that 48 years after his death historians are still struggling to separate legend from fact.

But Thomas Alva Edison was also the most prolific inventor who ever lived; without his gadgets modern life would be inconceivable. The phonograph, the movie camera, the microphone, the mimeograph, the stock ticker—they only begin the list. Though Alexander Graham Bell devised the first telephone transmitter and receiver, it was Edison who worked out a system of reproducing phone conversations over long distances loudly enough that they could be heard easily, and who may have been the first to shout "hello" into a telephone mouthpiece. His one discovery in basic science—the "Edison effect," the emission of electrons from a heated electric conductor—led eventually to the creation of the electronics industry. which has given the world radio, television, computers, radar and other marvels. Indeed, Edison's inventions are literally too numerous to mention. He set and retains the record for U.S. patents held by an individual, a staggering 1,093.

Above all, Edison invented the first practical electric light, and a power-distribution system that put it cheaply into every home. Like much else about Edison, the precise date is in dispute, but the inventor himself remembered Oct. 21, 1879, as the day on which he began the test of the first successful light bulb.

Are there lessons to be learned from the life and ways of the quintessential Yankee tinkerer that could help revive the flickering spirit of U.S. invention? Any understanding of the great inventor must begin by stripping away myths. Edison, who had a lust for glory and a constitutional inability to refrain from embellishing a good story, saw to it that that would be no easy job; he perpetrated an incredible number of myths about himself. He often boasted that he had never attended school for a single day. Untrue. He had at least three years of formal education as a child—a stint that was not unusually short in the rural Ohio and Michigan of his youth. As a budding inventor, he also attended classes in chemistry at New York City's Cooper Union after realizing that his self-taught knowledge of that science was inadequate.

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