Get this: Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb.
According to David Burkus, the author of “The Myths of Creativity,” he was actually the 22nd or 23rd person to invent it, depending on how you count.
Not only did Edison not invent the light bulb – as we’re all taught in school – he also wasn’t this “lone genius” dreaming up endless amazing inventions by himself. He had a team behind him. “Thomas Edison’s greatest invention wasn’t the light bulb,” says Burkus. “It was his laboratory of Menlo Park.”
Edison’s greatest achievement, it turns out, was assembling a team.
Think about it. Nearly 150 years ago – long before it was a trendy concept – Edison realized he could benefit the most, and the people around him could benefit the most, from collaboration. His genius, the experts agree, was bringing together a diverse team in a supportive environment and letting them have at it, to work on different projects, tinker, and cross-pollinate ideas.
And what that Menlo Park team accomplished, churning out patent after patent, was astonishing. They laid the groundwork, not only for how we light our homes and offices, but for almost every aspect of our wired world.
To hear more of this amazing story, listen to episode one of Teamistry, “The Wizards of Menlo Park”Listen now
Menlo Park, New Jersey 1880
Picture an early morning in November of 1880. The sun is just rising, a white picket fence surrounds a large area about the size of a city block. In one corner of this lot is a regal 19th-century home with a wraparound porch and lots of windows. But, in addition, there are also several small buildings about the property, all of them workshops. Machinists (people who mostly make metal parts by hand) as well as glassblowers, carpenters, and blacksmiths arrive very early. Early, by the way, because they need the natural light to do their work. Which is delightfully ironic, since what they’re working on is a system of electricity that if done right, will light houses, city blocks, whole cities… and the world. A world where they’d be able to do their work anytime, day or night.
During the day at Menlo Park, the machinists made the bits and pieces the inventors needed for their work later in the evening. And when the inventors wrapped up a couple of hours before sunrise, they’d leave a pile of notes for the machinists of what needed to be built the next day. It was an ongoing cycle of communication between different groups, some going to workshops and others, the inventors and experimenters, to the laboratory.
“It was an open concept,” says Paul Israel, the director of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University, “with people working in different benches on different projects, electrical or chemical. It was very much a collaborative place to work, this give and take between the inventor, like Edison, and the machinists.”
Robert Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of Edison’s Electric Light, puts it this way: “It was just a playland for the inventor at work.”
Edison’s big promises
“Edison spent approximately $40,000 to fill this building with everything he thought was necessary to create new inventions,” says Kathleen Carlucci, director of the Thomas Edison Center. (In today’s money, that’s about $1 million.)
That was some serious investment. And it had to be. Because Edison’s group wasn’t the only one chasing the dream of being the first to light up the world. A number of innovators were on his heels, including Edison’s great rival at the time the U.S. Electric Lighting Company.
And by 1880, Edison was running out of money.
He was forced to seek outside investors for the additional funds needed to hire and pay for more workers to continue the projects that were taking much longer than expected. To woo that capital, Edison made promises he wasn’t yet sure he could keep. He told a number of newspapers that he would be the first to light up a square mile of Manhattan with incandescent light. Not only that, he promised to do it “soon.” Like, any-day-now soon. But the progress was slow, and the pressure to deliver grew by the day. There was a growing sense of frustration from the public, and especially those investors.
“The cost of copper alone was enormous,” says Jill Jonnes, the author of Empires of Light. “So 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.”
By the fall of that year, the Edison team was working flat out to build a full-scale model of an electrical system that could power the area around Menlo Park. If they could do it, if they could get all the parts working, then they believed they’d be able to transfer that capacity to New York and deliver on the promise.
Each step is in the dark
The team’s starting point was a barely working light bulb. Task number one was improving it. “He had to invent a long-lasting incandescent light bulb,” says Jonnes. “Which was an extremely difficult proposition that he really underestimated.”
And that was just the beginning. “Not only did he have to figure out the incandescent light bulb,” says Jonnes, “he also had to invent a powerful dynamo [generators that convert mechanical energy into electrical energy] for the electrical system 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.”
The next questions were endless: how to get the electricity into people’s houses to power the bulbs? 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?
These challenges were exactly why Edison needed the team. A team of highly skilled, highly trained specialists that could tackle each individual problem – and tackle them as a group.
A workplace “musical chairs”
Among the big problems the team was trying to solve was a way to control the electrical current passing through the model system. One of the Menlo park team, John Ott, who had joined as, essentially, a craftsperson to help make the various instruments involved in the electrical system, was so clever and talented that he moved between the machinist shop and the invention laboratory with ease. “John Ott, who was a machinist at Menlo Park,” says Israel, “becomes one of the central experimenters.”
Ott’s example demonstrates the innovative way the team got input from different sources by keeping roles fluid. The shared workspaces allowed for divergent thinking to become shared thinking. Because even though the Menlo Park team was primarily divided into machinists and inventors, in the “shifts” mentioned above, all workers were allowed and encouraged to move from position to position, project to project, depending on where the help was needed and individual talent. It was sort’ve like a workplace “musical chairs.”
And the team needed everyone with an idea to take climb aboard, take a seat, and have a go, because the first attempts to run a full current through the model system were disastrous. It caused fires everywhere. So while one part of the group worked on the wiring, another had to invent and build the safety fuse to ensure nothing overheated.
But Edison’s approach helped them, because he had broken a large problem into smaller parts and assigned different people to those parts, while at the same time enabling the team to take advantage of a constant process of reiteration. “He would constantly evaluate and reevaluate the products of what the team was coming up with and then make new assignments and modify the assignments,” says Friedel.
“I sometimes refused to help”
Edison wrote: “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.”
Edison’s team wasn’t held back by only working on a specific job, or even by their previous experience. If someone had an idea, they were encouraged to explore it.
And, indeed, this is how the team overcame the wiring problem that was holding them up. They had kept trying to run overhead cables, but weather was wreaking havoc on their system. Plus, cities at the time were already becoming clogged with telegraph wires. Edison proposed putting the copper wires underground. But, like so many things, that solution meant another problem: How do you insulate and protect the copper?
Edison gave the task to engineer Wilson Howell, who’d never done anything like it. In Howell’s journal, he described how he went about trying to solve this problem:
“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.”
Eventually, Howell and the team came up with a concoction they believed would protect underground wires. With wiring insulated and thermal regulators in place to keep lamps from melting, the Menlo Park team’s electrical system prototype was ready for the next flip of the switch.
We, not me
One of Edison’s inventors put it like this: “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.”
Says Israel, “We can see this collaborative nature of their work by the use of the pronoun “we,” to describe the group and the work of the group rather than an individual.”
The moment of truth finally arrived. The entire Menlo Park team gathered outside the laboratory 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?
On Edison’s command, Wilson Howell flipped the switch, which sent massive amounts of electricity through six miles of underground cables. All around Menlo Park, the air filled with an electric hum as more than 600 incandescent lamps lit up.
After years of struggle, the Menlo Park team stood in awe as night became day.
The following month, the Edison Illuminating Company was 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 lit up an entire square mile of Manhattan.
“We put Thomas Edison and others like him on a pedestal,” says Burkus, “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.”
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