The Edison Mind-Set

The growing emphasis on ideas is not new to the times. In Thomas Edison’s era, the key inventions were related to the airplane, lightbulb, telegraph, telephone, and automobile. Today key inventions are emerging around the Internet, software, and business processes. Thomas Edison personified the “creative genius” of the era when he said (in a phrase captured by his colleague Francis Upton):

Men are just beginning to propose questions and find answers, and we may be sure that no matter what question we ask, so long as it is not against the laws of nature, a solution can be found.8

The “we” here was no mere rhetorical device, but a new way of thinking. Thomas Edison is often romanticized as a maverick inventor—the creator of the lightbulb, the motion picture, the microphone, and myriad other technologies. Less well known is his invention of the modern research laboratory using teams of inventors.

To be sure, Edison will forever be the very symbol of brainpower. In his lifetime, he would obtain 1,093 patents, including one for the incandescent electric lamp—a prototype of the “lightbulb” that would come to symbolize the “bright” idea. Other patents included those for the phonograph, the microphone, and the motion picture projector—technologies that would shape a century. His years of invention came at the outset of an era. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the United States would experience a steady rise in patents that would continue to the present, boosted ...

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