Business: The Quintessential Innovator

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Another reason for Edison's inability to hold on to money was his extravagance. He excelled at raising venture capital (J.P. Morgan helped to bankroll his effort to invent the electric light), but had a genius for spending even more than he raised. Not on himself; his oddball personal habits were far from extravagant. But no sum was too great to lavish on his laboratories; Edison ordered the most expensive materials on earth, like platinum, by the pound. He was also the creator of the modern research and development lab, which he called an "invention factory." He was the first to hire a team of scientists and technicians and set them to work systematically producing innovations. But his inability to stay within a budget would speedily get him fired from any corporate lab today, if his spectacular untidiness did not discourage the lab from hiring him in the first place.

What then was the secret of Edison's inventiveness? The core of it must remain as elusive as the mystery of why Rembrandt handled chiaroscuro so masterfully; it was an inborn gift, honed by practice but unteachable. Nobel-prizewinning Physicist Isidor I. Rabi, for one, maintains that Edison could no more have stopped himself from inventing than a born punster can refrain from playing word games. Robert Conot, author of a 1979 biography of Edison, A Streak of Luck, observes that Edison's mind "multiplied devices from a single idea like a dividing amoeba and then compartmentalized the creations and endeavors." He was supremely self-confident; if prevailing opinion was that a device could not be invented, that only made Edison more convinced that it could. And Conot depicts a man who was totally open-minded about how to proceed—until he came to a conviction, at which point he turned into a doctrinaire fanatic.

Edison had habits of mind that can still be useful to would-be inventors and their bosses. One was simple—but incredible—persistence. It was Edison who said that "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." No matter that he hired assistants to do the sweating while he provided the spark; nearly all his inventions came after thousands of experiments that failed but taught him something. The only device that worked on the first try was the phonograph. It was a piece of serendipity; Edison had been trying to invent a device that would permit telephone messages to be sent over telegraph lines, and was astonished to discover that the apparatus could record his own voice. Partly because the phonograph came so easily, he distrusted it enough to fail to capitalize on its moneymaking potential. (Another reason was that he had poor hearing and no real appreciation of music, and did not realize what a bonanza could be reaped by recording melodies.)

Edison also saw inventions in a social and commercial context. He drew up lists of inventions that the world needed, or at least would buy, and set out to produce them. In the case of electric light, gas was already lighting homes, and electric arc lights were illuminating streets and stores—though much too brilliantly, and expensively, for general use. The need, Edison saw, was for some other form of electric illumination that would provide a steadier and, above all, cheaper glow than gas.

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