Rock Star Innovation: Thomas Edison

July 4, 2010

At a time when our society worships multi-millionaire pro athletes, celebrities and rock stars it was refreshing to see Time Magazine’s profile of an American rock star, Thomas Edison, in its annual history issue. If you live in the United States, chances are you pay your electricity bills to the company named after Edison. Chances are, you might also grumble at the ever increasing cost of your bill.

But you might not know that Edison holds 1,093 patents, many of which have had a profound impact on our everyday lives. Consider this: if Edison had not invented the kinetograph, we might not have the motion pictures which capture our imagination and offer us a place to hide and keep cool on hot summer days. If he had not invented the phonograph, we would likely not be able to enjoy music in the comfort of our own homes.  Most importantly, Edison devised a system of electricity distribution which allowed us to light our homes and keep ourselves comfortable and our food cold.

Many of these things that Edison invented, we take for granted. Think about life before these inventions…to me life at this time seems a bit like the dark ages. But Edison came along and literally and figuratively brightened the world.

I felt a sense of pride reading about how Edison helped spark the American way of innovation and learning that Americans have captured nearly half of all Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine since 1901. But I also felt a sense of disappointment to learn that America’s place in the world of innovation seems to be taking a dive…the United states is 8th among wealthy nations for portion of GDP spent on research and development.

One of my favorite parts in Time’s feature on Thomas Edison is a printed page from Edison’s list of “things doing and to be done,” which includes a mention of projects to improve the phonograph and lighting, the creation of ink for the blind and an electrical piano. The accompanying text mentions that Edison filled more than 3,500 notebooks that contained ideas and drawings of his projects. I think this is great because, I’ve been keeping “idea notebooks” for a number of years…though I need to catch up to Edison’s 3,500. Seeing evidence of Edison’s tinkered thinking is fascinating to me.

While America’s dominance in innovation may be slowing down, the Time article proposes that this might not be an entirely bad thing. With our ever-increasing global world…innovation that makes our lives better could come from any number of parts of the world. It would be great, in my opinion, if we could return to a time and environment where this innovation is once again encouraged.

If you’re interested in Edison, do yourself a favor…go pick up the July 5th edition of Time magazine. Have a happy and safe Independence Day!

How about you…do you keep an idea journal?

1 Lori July 4, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Hi Tim,
Oh boy, you really hit upon a favorite of mine. I was just thinking how I’m not even sure I could explain to one of my nieces or nephews how electricity works. Really. I mean, *really*. I took physics and all that jazz in college and get it on a theoretical level, but really? It still seems like magic to me, to be honest.

What a cool person to focus on this year, good for TIME.

Hey, that’s great that you keep an idea notebook, too. Since you asked, I do keep an idea journal, but it’s more about ideas about writing and jokes/comics. It’s mostly just a bunch of sketches and random ideas. I sometimes wonder if someone will read it and think I’m kind off my rocker. (LOL)

Great article, Tim!

2 Tim July 5, 2010 at 7:55 am

Hi Lori: I agree that electricity seems a bit magical at times…it’s always there when you need it. Though my electricity does an occasional disappearing act during some strong storms. Ha ha, good to learn about you’re idea notebook…I bet it has some funny stuff in there and a lot of stuff that turns up on your blog and in your writing. As for being off your rocker…I say don’t worry, put another chair next to your rocker and you’ll be all set 😉 Thanks, Lori, for sharing your thoughts and have a fun, safe holiday weekend!

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