Thomas Edison: Lessons to Draw from the ‘Greatest Innovator of All Time’

February 10, 2012 | Arts & Entertainment, People
Thomas Edison archivist says there's more to learn about the 'Wizard of Menlo Park' beyond his role as an inventor.

By Young Soo Yang

Historic photo of Thomas Edison at his desk. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
A recent MIT survey asked Americans ages 16-25 who they thought was the greatest innovator of all time. Interestingly enough, this “Apple Generation” overwhelmingly chose Thomas Edison (54 percent). Steve Jobs was a distant second (24 percent).

With countless books and news articles predicting the end of America’s preeminence in the world as a leader in innovation, a fresh look at whom some consider the “greatest” seems appropriate as we mark Thomas Alva Edison’s 165th birthday this Saturday (he was born on February 11, 1847).

Leonard DeGraaf is an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange. He’s currently working on a manuscript for a book about Thomas Edison to be published next year. DeGraaf doesn’t intend for the book to be a biography or a detailed study of Edison’s inventions. Rather, the focus will be on Edison as a business manager and entrepreneur.

He says that while most people think of Edison primarily as an inventor, DeGraaf views Edison as an innovator. “Not only is he solving technical problems, designing new machines, or new products in the laboratory, but he also has to deal with a broad range of other problems — creating companies to manufacture his products and [creating] companies to market them and sell them.”

Henry Ford, a close friend of Edison, famously joked that Edison was “the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman.”

Chemistry lab at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
But DeGraaf doesn’t think that statement is entirely accurate. “He was a lot more sophisticated than I think some people would give him credit for. He had some successes and he had some failures.”

Also, he thinks it’s unfair to judge Edison’s business acumen (or lack of) from the perspective of today’s economic environment. Explains DeGraaf, “I think you have to look at it from the point of view of — what are his goals, what is he trying to accomplish and how is he dealing with the environment that he has to work in?”

DeGraaf describes Edison as one of the earliest “business celebrities,” saying that Edison was involved in all aspects of product innovation, not just conception. “He basically brands himself. And that’s why you see in a lot of the products that he puts out, his picture is on the box or his signature is on the box, because the public associated him with cutting edge technology. So it was an important way for him to appeal to customers to buy his products.”

“He over time creates a persona for himself as an inventor, as an innovator,” DeGraaf says. “That is an important part of his marketing strategy.”

Sound like a certain individual from Cupertino, Calif.?

More than any mega corporation in recent memory, Apple’s fortunes have been intricately tied to its late CEO and founder Steve Jobs and the cult of personality that surrounded him. Apple’s product launches were eagerly anticipated worldwide, in no small part, due to Jobs’ marketing showmanship and his legend as the “Wizard of Apple.”

DeGraaf says that while there are some important similarities between the two men in terms of their status as business celebrities, he is quick to draw a distinction. Edison, he says, was involved in many more different kinds of industries including electric light and power, telegraphy, motion pictures and sound recording, just to name a few.

Edison's desk in the Thomas Edison library at the West Orange laboratory complex. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
He also adds that the high tech world that we live in today, and in which Steve Jobs worked, was already created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “And Edison [played] a role in shaping that world,” says DeGraaf.

DeGraaf hopes that his research serves as a reminder that Edison’s experience is very much relevant to today’s challenges in terms of how America encourages future innovation and entrepreneurship.

“It isn’t that he invented the first practical electrical light or that he invented the phonograph. I think those things are fine,” DeGraaf says. “But really, the story of his life allows us to ask bigger questions of how new technologies are created and developed.”