Business: The Quintessential Innovator

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He talked so often about his need for no more than three hours' sleep a night that the story has become enshrined in biographies. A half-truth at best. When the Ford Motor Co. archives were opened in 1951, researchers found many pictures of Henry Ford and his pal Edison in laboratories, at meetings and on outings. In some of these photos, Ford seemed attentive and alert, but Edison could be seen asleep — on a bench, in a chair, on the grass. His secret weapon was the catnap, and he elevated it to an art. Recalled one of his associates: "His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep any where, any time, on anything."

The truth is somewhat less flattering to Edison than the myths. Like many a genius, he was often a terrible trial to those who had to get along with him. He disliked not only changing his clothes but bathing, damaged his health by subsisting on pie and coffee, and neglected his two wives and six children. He lavished material goods on them, but otherwise paid scarcely any attention to them; in fact he rarely slept at home, preferring the laboratory. His first wife died grossly overweight; his second once said their marriage had been "no great love." The Hollywood picture of Edison as a dedicated battler for the good of humanity could hardly be more wrong. Much as his inventions did benefit humanity, Edison's object was to make money, as much as he could. His first patent was on a device for automatically and speedily recording votes in Congress and state legislatures; but because such a machine was seen as a threat to the filibuster, the legislators did not want it. Edison later took delight in recalling what he had resolved then and there: "Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success." For once, there is no reason to doubt his word.

He did make money; when he died in 1931 he left an estate of more than $2 million. Not bad for the depths of the Great Depression, but a puny sum compared with what a good businessman could have realized from Edison's inventions. Part of the reason for Edison's failure to capitalize on his own ideas was his fanatic resistance to any attempts to modify them. He insisted for too long that his cylinders made better recording devices than the more practical discs, and, because he had worked with direct current, he fought the introduction of alternating current. He gave demonstrations in which stray dogs were electrocuted with jolts of A.C. to dramatize a nonexistent threat to the safety of humans.

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