Learning about innovation from Mr. Edison and his phonograph

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Most people think of Thomas Edison as a lone inventor and marketing genius. But history teaches different lessons. Here are some from Edison’s invention of the phonograph.

Not so “lone” after all

Edison was no “lone” inventor. He set up the prototype of the modern industrial laboratory. He filled the place with people of diverse talents, divided them into small teams, and set them to work on projects. Edison called them “Muckers.” He called himself “The Chief Mucker.”

A systematic approach to innovation

Edison wasn’t interested in just inventing things. He wanted to invent things that would make money in the marketplace. Jon Gertner describes Edison’s process like this in his book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

“Edison used a dogged and systematic exploratory process. He tried to isolate useful materials— his stockroom was replete with everything from copper wire to horses’ hoofs and rams’ horns— until he happened upon a patentable, and marketable, combination.”

Accidents played a role

The process didn’t always proceed in a straight line. In fact, Edison didn’t set out to invent a phonograph. He was looking for a way to record telephone conversations. And he handed that project over to the Muckers for almost a decade before returning to it himself.

Assembling the pieces in new ways

Edison wasn’t above using other people’s good ideas, either. The wax cylinder in the phonograph was originally the idea of Charles Tainter. Much later, Tainter made significant improvements to Edison’s phonograph. He named his device the Graphophone and marketed it as a way to play recorded music.

Users and others complete the innovation

Edison thought that his phonograph had a market, but it wasn’t playing recorded music. He thought people would use it to record the last words of the dying or creating audio books for the blind. When other people used the phonograph to record music, Edison was upset. He worried that such frivolous use would harm the market for business applications.

Eventually, he came around and started a company to sell recorded music. But that company went out of business in 1929. Tainter’s Graphophone Company would go on to become Columbia Records.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Don’t be led astray by the myths surrounding either Edison or innovation. Throughout history innovation has been mostly a team-based process of recombining what already exists in new ways. Users usually come up with uses that the original inventor never thought of. And every new innovation creates opportunity for others.

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