It’s time to set the record straight: Thomas Edison’s greatest achievement was not the lightbulb. In fact, he wasn’t even the first to invent it. The unrecognized master stroke of Edison was he brought together some of the brightest minds to collaborate, exchange ideas, and work in creative ways to change the world as we knew it. In the first episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite journeys to late-19th century Menlo Park, where a team of unsung heroes is hard at work setting up an electricity grid that could light up a New York city block. There’s a lot at stake: financial ruin, countless hours of labor, and Edison’s very reputation. We hear from David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity and Jill Jonnes, author of Empires of Light. We also get the insights of Robert Friedel, University of Maryland history professor and coauthor of Edison’s Electric Light, Kathleen Carlucci, Director of the Thomas Edison Center, and Paul Israel, Director of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University.
Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.
Film narrator: The newspapers called it "The Miracle of the 19th Century." Shortly after the world had seen the wizardry of the invention of the phonograph, Tom Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, started a fresh notebook. It was the first of many on a new subject.
Film clip: The object of this invention is to devise an electric lamp.
David Burkus: Thomas Edison's greatest invention was not the light bulb. To begin, he didn't actually invent the light bulb. He was either the 22nd or 23rd person to invent it, depending on how you count.
Gabriela: That's David Burkus. He's the author of “The Myths of Creativity” and he wants to set the record straight when it comes to Thomas Edison.
David Burkus: I believe his greatest invention was this laboratory of Menlo Park, this idea, "Let's get some of the best and brightest together. Let's get them from diverse sources to work on various different projects, to tinker, to cross-pollinate ideas." Long before that was a trendy thing like it is nowadays and organizations, he figured out that he could benefit the most and the people around him could benefit the most from working as a collaborative and diverse team. That was a way bigger invention because it churned out consistently patent after patent after patent.
Gabriela: Okay, David just debunked a couple of myths I totally believed in. Not only did Edison not invent the light bulb, he wasn't this lone inventor who was dreaming up endless patents. He had a team. As David said, the way that team came together to solve problems might be Edison's greatest achievement, especially considering that what they did laid the groundwork, not only for how we light our homes and offices, but for almost every aspect of our wired world.
Gabriela: I'm Gabriela Cowperthwaite. I’m a documentary and feature filmmaker and the host of Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating, and expressing themselves together they end up doing something amazing.
Gabriela: So let's travel back in time to the dawn of electric light to figure out just what made the Menlo Park team behind Thomas Edison so inventive. It's an early morning in November of 1880 and the sun is just rising. A white picket fence surrounds a large area about the size of a city block and the lawn has been recently dug up. In one corner of the lot is a regal 19th-century home, the kind with a wraparound porch and lots of windows.
Gabriela: There's also a bunch of other small buildings, all of them workshops. Machinists, that's people who mostly make metal parts by hand, as well as glassblowers, carpenters, and blacksmiths are all arriving super early in the morning. Super early because they need the natural light to do their work, which is ironic because what they're working on is a system of electricity that if they get it right, can light up a city block. But for now, all they have is a working light bulb. A barely working light bulb.
Jill Jonnes: So then he had to invent a long-lasting incandescent light bulb, which was an extremely difficult proposition that he really underestimated.
Gabriela: That's Jill Jonnes, the author of “Empires of Light.” As she says, even things like dynamos for the electrical system, which are generators that convert mechanical energy into electrical energy, even those had to be created.
Jill Jonnes: Not only did he have to figure out the incandescent light bulb, he also had to invent a powerful dynamo that would operate his system of direct-current electricity. That did not exist. He also had to invent a reliable and safe delivery system carrying the electricity to the light bulbs and, eventually, to motors.
Gabriela: So, yeah, how do you get the electricity into people's houses to power the bulbs? And once there, where do people plug in their light bulbs? How do they turn them on and off? What if there's a power surge? All the stuff you and I take for granted when we flip the switch.
Jill Jonnes: So there was a great deal you had to do and I actually would like to read you something Edison himself said: "Everything is so new that each step is in the dark. I have to make the dynamos, the lamps, the conductors, and attend to a thousand details the world never hears of."
Gabriela: Well, it all required a team of highly-skilled, highly trained specialists who could tackle each of those individual problems, but tackle them as a group. Getting that group together was a huge investment and a huge risk. Edison had already sunk a lot of his own money into Menlo Park, but he was running out, so he turned to outside investors for the money needed to hire and pay all these new workers.
Gabriela: In exchange, the competitive Edison gave his team a challenge by stating in a number of newspapers that he would light up a square mile of Manhattan with incandescent light. Any day now. But progress had been slow. There was mounting pressure and a growing sense of frustration from the public at large and especially from Edison's investors.
Jill Jonnes: And that would have been largely JP Morgan and also his partner, Drexel, because they had to keep on pouring in more money. The cost of copper alone was enormous, so just the money men were unhappy because they were led by Edison to believe this was an easy short task. In fact, it turned out to be long and very difficult.
Gabriela: Meanwhile, in the fall of 1880, the team is working flat out to build a full-scale model of an electrical system that could power the area around Menlo Park. That's if they can get all the parts working.
Gabriela: Carrying this weight of expectation is a whole new group of people who arrive at Menlo Park around noon, about 50 men, investors and experimenters all heading to a large wooden building, almost smack dab in the middle of the lot, the laboratory.
Gabriela: Here's Robert Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of “Edison's Electric Light.”
Robert Friedel: There would be a set of tables just filled to the gills with apparatus of all sorts: chemical apparatus, mechanical devices, measuring devices, but especially electrical meters for batteries, other experimental devices. It was just a playland, if you will, for the inventor at work.
Gabriela: The way he describes it, you can just picture the classic mad scientist laboratory from one of the early Frankenstein movies, except without the monster. And in the case of the Menlo Park team, Edison didn't just have all the best players backing him up, he had all the best gear, too.
Gabriela: Here's Kathleen Carlucci. She's the director of the Thomas Edison Center.
Kathleen Carluc...: You would see a lot of long tables and on the walls of the laboratory, you would see bottles, the different specimen samples. It was loaded with them. Edison spent approximately $40,000 of money at that time to fill this building in with everything he thought was necessary to create new inventions.
Gabriela: By the way, in today's money, that 40 grand is about $1 million, so this was some serious investment. But it had to be. You see, Edison's troop wasn't the only one chasing this goal. A number of innovators in the US and even the UK were at their heels, including Edison's great rival at the time, the US Electric Lighting Company. All chasing the dream of being the first to light up the world.
Gabriela: Even though the Menlo Park team was primarily divided into machinists and inventors, workers were allowed and even encouraged to move from position to position, project to project, depending on where the help was needed and what you were best at. Kind of like a workplace “musical chairs.” Here’s Paul Israel, the director of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University, with a great example of this team superpower, how roles could shift and change
Paul Israel: John Ott, who was a machinist at Menlo Park, becomes one of the central experimenters that's trying to develop voltage regulators for dynamos.
Gabriela: So basically, a way to control the electrical current passing through the model system they're building. Yeah, this guy, John Ott, shows up at Menlo Park as, essentially, a craftsperson helping to make the various instruments involved in the electrical system. But he was so clever, so talented he moved between the machinist shop and the invention laboratory.
Gabriela: This was an innovative way of getting input from all different sources and keeping roles fluid. But having access to these new ways of thinking wasn't enough to compete with other science teams. The shared workspace at Menlo Park allowed the divergent thinking to become shared thinking, As historian Paul Israel points out:
Paul Israel: It was an open concept, right, with people working in different benches on different projects, electrical or chemical. It was very much a collaborative place to work. There's this give and take between the inventor, like Edison, and the machinists. They can say, "Well, it would've worked better if you designed it with this arrangement rather than that arrangement." That's one of the things the machinist could do. They might have a better sense of what materials would work best.
Gabriela: Collaboration was essential for this group's work. Try to picture all the parts necessary to deliver electricity into your home. The wires, the fuses, the switches, and the sockets, they all have to work together. Edison's team is developing all of it for their full-scale model at the same time, constantly checking in with each other to figure out if one part works with another.
Gabriela: For instance, if they just ran a full current through the system, it would catch on fire. So while one part of the group works on the wiring, someone has to invent and build the safety fuse to make sure nothing overheats.
Gabriela: Not only had Edison broken a large problem into smaller parts and assigned different people to those parts, the team itself was in a constant process of reiteration. Try something, maybe make it better or maybe fail and try it again. As historian Robert Friedel puts it:
Robert Friedel: He would constantly evaluate and reevaluate the products of what the team were coming up with and then make new assignments and modify the assignments and keep through this reiterative process of improving the devices that are on hand, learning more about their behavior until he finally came up with what he wanted.
Gabriela: People were encouraged by Edison to figure this stuff out for themselves. They weren't held back by only working on a specific job. They weren't even held back by their previous experience. For the late 1800s, this approach to problem-solving was super modern. Here's how Edison wrote about some of the ways he got team members to think for themselves:
Gabriela: "When I came across an assistant who was in any way ingenious, I sometimes refused to help him out in his experiments, telling him to see if he could not work it out for himself so as to encourage him."
Gabriela: This approach helped the team overcome a wiring problem as they furiously work to build their proof of concept. Previously, they'd try running overhead cables, but weather had wreaked havoc on their system. Plus, cities were becoming clogged with telegraph wires. It was a major hurdle.
Gabriela: So Edison proposed putting the copper wires underground, but that meant another problem: How do you insulate and protect the copper? Edison gave that task to engineer Wilson Howell. In Howell's journal, he described how he went about trying to solve this problem:
Gabriela: "Mr. Edison sent me to his library and instructed me to read up on the subject of insulation. After two weeks search, I came out of a library with a list of materials which we might try, and within 10 days, I had Dr. Moses's laboratory entirely taken up with small kettles in which I boiled up a variety of insulating compounds. Of course, there were many failures, the partial successes pointing the direction for better trials."
Gabriela: Eventually, Howell and his team came up with a concoction they believed would protect underground wires, a belief that will soon be put to the test. All this work, and all the pressure to build an electrical system as soon as possible required a way for the team to... recharge. Here’s Paul Israel.
Paul Israel: They'd have beer brought in, right, to the laboratory and they'd have meals brought in the laboratory, so they'd take breaks. That's when they might be playing the organ, singing songs, telling tales.
Gabriela: You heard that right: an organ, a big, old-timey pipe organ. Kathleen Carlucci says it was put to good use.
Kathleen Carluc...: There was actually a organ at the back on a top floor and they would play songs waiting for time to pass and see what was happening.
Gabriela: All this stuff helped relieve stress and even boredom while waiting for some parts of the electrical model to be ready before other parts could be tested. The downtime helped them connect with each other socially and, as David Burkus points out, put their energy to good use.
David Burkus: It takes smart leaders to realize that time away from work makes work better. That time when we pull back and allow those creative batteries to recharge makes the ultimate product better.
Gabriela: The gang at Menlo Park didn't just play together. They also played practical jokes on one another. A famous one involves Edison and some other inventors laying a live electrical wire on the floor of the bathroom. They would then peer through a hole waiting for the poor soul in the bath to step out onto the wet floor. The resulting shock would cause their arms to involuntarily shoot up in the air. Said Edison: "We enjoyed the sport immensely."
Gabriela: Despite the rest breaks and comradery, here's a firsthand account from an inventor who, while he didn't feel abused, certainly felt pushed to his limits and wrote about the experience in one of his letters home:
Gabriela: "The laboratory life with Edison was a strenuous but joyous life for all physically, mentally, and emotionally. We worked long night hours during the week, frequently to the limit of human endurance."
Gabriela: The Menlo Park team has been working on their electrical system prototype since dawn and now the sun's starting to go down. With wiring insulated and thermal regulators in place to keep lamps from melting, perhaps tonight they can flip the switch and see if they've made history, not to mention silencing the critics and turning that pressure into good press.
Gabriela: The machinists pack up for the day, but this is when the scientists get going in the laboratory. Partially, this is because Edison is a night owl and likes starting late and working until the wee hours of the morning, but it's also a necessity of the workflow.
Gabriela: It goes like this: During the day, the machinists make the bits and pieces the inventors need for their work later in the evening. When they wrap up a couple of hours before sunrise, the inventors leave a pile of notes for the machinists of what needs to be built the next day, an ongoing cycle of communication.
Gabriela: That's the lab's grandfather clock chiming midnight, but at Menlo Park, that doesn't mean the day is wrapping up. In fact, the lab is bursting with activity because everyone is confident that tonight, at long last, they will power up their electrical grid for the first time.
Gabriela: The inventors are working at a furious pace, work that includes a lot of note-taking. You see, on each of the long tables, there's a notebook. All the inventors occasionally go over to one and write in it. This was how Edison encouraged not only innovation, but collaboration.
Gabriela: To be fair, the main reason he put out the notebooks in the first place was to keep track of everything for future patent registrations. But it turned out to be an amazing tool for teamwork. The notebooks even became an expression of teamwork, as Paul Israel explains...
Paul Israel: We can see this collaborative nature of their work by the use of the pronoun "we," right, to describe the group and the work of the group rather than an individual.
Gabriela: These notebooks are the Menlo Park team’s most powerful collaboration superpower, allowing them to build on each other’s radically different ideas, capturing all this divergent thinking like lightning in a bottle, so their work could literally be more than the sum of their individual efforts. You can picture it as a “Human pyramid.” And I’ll give you an example: in challenging each other’s ideas and giving constructive feedback about the best way to insulate wires, they were building towards a solution: the electric grid they were about to power up. Here’s how another of Edison’s inventors put it:
Gabriela: "Edison made your work interesting. He made me feel that I was making something with him. I wasn't just a workman. Then in those days, we all hoped to get rich with him."
Gabriela: The moment of truth finally arrives. There is a hint of winter in the air on this very dark November evening. The entire Menlo Park team gathers outside the laboratory, over 60 men anxiously awaiting the fateful moment. Will the underground cables crack? Will the fuses handle the extra load? Will the sockets power the lamps or just burn out? And will the massive financial investments pay off?
Gabriela: Here's Edison author Jill Jonnes on what could have gone wrong when they flipped the switch.
Jill Jonnes: Everything. I mean, just think about all these components he put together that the most difficult thing really was what they called the "conductors." Edison had made this decision that all of his electric wires were going to be buried. Actually, even as they were burying the conductors in lower Manhattan, something went awry and they badly shocked, semi-electrocuted a horse. That was a huge worry.
Jill Jonnes: And the first time that they tested them out in Menlo Park, they really didn't work well. The light bulbs had a certain length of functionality. There was always the worry that those would go. And then the dynamos were pretty new.
Gabriela: So, yeah, a lot could go wrong. On Edison's command, Wilson Howell flips the switch, sending massive amounts of electricity through six miles of underground cables. All around Menlo Park, the air is filled with an electric hum as over 600 incandescent lamps light up. After years of struggle, the Menlo Park team stands in awe as night becomes day.
Gabriela: The following month, the Edison Illuminating Company will be formed to help bring this lighting grid to the world. And then in September of 1882, four years after the promise was made, Edison's team will finally light up an entire square mile of Manhattan.
Gabriela: Edison will eventually outgrow Menlo Park and move his facilities to West Orange, New Jersey. The team will be broken up, some going to the West Orange labs, some to various Edison enterprises. The cutting-edge invention that was Menlo Park will end, but it will also inspire future research and development.
Gabriela: I’ll leave you with one parting thought from David Burkus. Remember the myth busting he did at the start of the story? About Edison not inventing the lightbulb or being the lone genius? Well, David also made the case that Edison's greatest invention was the "TEAM" he surrounded himself with:
David Burkus: We put Thomas Edison and others like him on a pedestal and then we feel like we could never measure up to that. Well, the truth is he wasn't on a pedestal to begin with, he was surrounded by a group of people all working together. When you need help, it doesn't make you less creative or less talented, it makes you like everyone else.
Gabriela: I mentioned a couple of team superpowers throughout the show, like how the Menlo Park group built on each others different ideas or how they could work on something depending on their abilities instead of their titles. To find out more about those and other superpowers, check out the extras page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. Make sure you hit subscribe so you don't miss a single story -- like how an international group of astronomers managed to photograph something that many scientists believed was impossible to capture. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. Thanks for listening.