On an October evening in 1879, Thomas Edison sat in his workshop in Menlo Park, N.J., puzzling over a problem. For months, the 32-year-old inventor had been trying to find a suitable filament for his electric light, a substance that would glow rather than burn when placed in a vacuum bulb. After a variety of materials failed, Edison followed a hunch: using a carbonized thread of cotton as his filament, his bulb flashed to life. It remained glowing all through the night, finally burning out nearly 14 hours later. The “Wizard of Menlo Park” had created the incandescent light bulb.
Edison’s triumph is a creation myth with an obvious appeal: the solitary genius works deep into the night until inspiration hits and—eureka!—electric light is born and the world is forever changed. At an exposition five years later, a sculptor captured Edison during “the moment” he invented the light bulb, connecting two wires to set his invention glowing. That notion of Edison as “the Man Who Lighted the World” is so persistent that to this day the image of a light bulb is a metaphor for a flash of insight.
The problem with this romantic vision of invention, however, is that it simply isn’t true.
By the time Edison found his filament, the light bulb had already existed in laboratories in Europe and America for decades. Edison’s breakthrough in 1879, in fact, was one of several concurrent advances, as rival inventors each raced to create their own versions of the incandescent bulb. As Ernest Freeberg writes in his recent book, The Age of Edison, the story of the light bulb is much larger than one man’s brilliant epiphany. “The inventor does not pull insights from a void, like a bulb suddenly illuminating a dark room,” he writes. “Invention is a complex social process.”
If Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, he did perfect the first commercially viable model. Others had come up with bulbs that burned out too quickly or prototypes that consumed so much power it was cheaper to just use gaslight. As the University of Tennessee history professor explains, “Edison and his rivals raced not to perfect a science experiment but a commercial product, a lamp that would not only work but would sell, and in sufficient quantity to reward a huge investment of capital.”
Here, Edison had an advantage. Unlike many of his rivals, the young Edison had already built a reputation for himself after creating the phonograph and improving the telegraph. His fame drew the resources and capital needed to fund his famous invention laboratory at Menlo Park, a place stocked with the latest equipment and staffed by teams of assistants with specialized knowledge. Edison was far from a tinkerer figuring out inventions in the woodshed. His light bulb was the product of a high-tech research lab devoted entirely to innovation.
Edison’s reputation also ensured that once he had made a technological breakthrough, he had the resources to push his particular product into the marketplace, and the stature to promote it. Edison himself was the Edison Co.’s greatest piece of marketing material, an appealing new version of that old American archetype, the self-made man.
Much of The Age of Edison is about how the inventor’s light bulb transformed the world and particularly American society. But, as Freeberg writes, Edison’s work on the light bulb also transformed the way we understand innovation. In the past, breakthroughs would come from tinkerers or brilliant mechanics—their impact on public life happened haphazardly. Edison Co. turned invention into an industrial production. This was “the moment when technological creativity became perpetual, not the occasional product of human genius but a fact of everyday life.”
Edison’s company eventually merged with General Electric, which expanded on his approach to invention with research and development labs staffed by graduates from the latest university programs. Invention was now something carried out by credentialed professionals under the supervision of corporate directors. It’s an innovation strategy that contemporary companies have continued to invest in, at places like Bell Labs, Xerox PARC and the Googleplex. Today, new inventions aren’t created by lone geniuses searching for flashes of inspiration in the night. They are produced by teams of people working together with increasingly specialized knowledge in modern versions of Edison’s Menlo Park. Companies like Microsoft produce and file thousands of patents a year—more than 3,000 in 2012 alone—with the regimented goal of pushing out commercial products.
In Edison’s time, as new inventions came to the market with increased regularity, people began to not just embrace miraculous new inventions, but expect them. In 1881, at the first-ever International Exposition of Electricity, visitors were awed by a blaze of Edison’s incandescent bulbs representing the “light of the future.” Three years later, at the Philadelphia exposition, the once wondrous technology was old-hat. In this way, today’s theatrical Apple product launches and CES trade shows, where the technological sages of the modern age show off the latest devices, are a continuation of that tradition.
And yet the idea of “the Inventor” is as powerful as ever. In the last years of Steve Jobs’s life, Apple’s stock price rose and fell with each report of his health, as though Jobs were the only Apple employee capable of producing wonders. James Dyson isn’t just the founder of his eponymous company; the image of him tinkering with vacuums in his home workshop is the foundation of the company’s mythology.
In 1929, Edison was lauded for a lifetime of achievement. The light bulb had changed the most fundamental facets of modern life—from how people worked, to when they slept, to how they amused themselves. In his address, President Herbert Hoover emphasized Edison’s role in creating “the modern method of invention.” If Edison’s light bulb changed the world, the way he invented it was just as influential. As Freeberg shows, the “age of Edison” may have begun more than a century ago with a simple filament, but we’re still living in it.