AAAS-Hitachi Lecture: Edison’s Work Traits Reveal Keys to Cultivating Innovation

Businesses that would like to increase their creativity and “innovate like Edison” should look back at the practices of one of history’s most productive inventors, author and business consultant Sarah Miller Caldicott said at a AAAS event.


Sarah Miller Caldicott and Thomas A. Edison [Caldicott's photo by Kathleen O’Neil]
Sarah Miller Caldicott and Thomas A. Edison
[Caldicott's photo by Kathleen O’Neil]

Thomas Alva Edison’s laboratories had a unique climate, particularly for his time. He established a relatively flat organization made of small teams and encouraged robust debate at all levels to ensure that many solutions to a problem would be considered.


“This is something that doesn’t happen as much today,” said Caldicott. “Leaders and managers don’t have as much dialogue—it tends to be pushed down in the organization and occasionally, you have a chance to speak with someone who is at a higher level.” That may mean ideas lose their momentum, she said, and it can make rapid problem solving difficult.

Caldicott spoke 8 December at the Fourth Annual AAAS-Hitachi Lecture on Science & Society, organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs.

A great-grandniece of Thomas Alva Edison, and a descendant of other inventors, Caldicott said she grew up hearing stories about how her relatives worked through problems and dealt with business successes and failures. After studying Edison’s papers housed at Rutgers University and other sources about his work, she published her findings in a 2007 book, Innovate Like Edison, which she co-authored with Michael Gelb.

Edison held the record for the most patents awarded to one person in the United States until 2005—his 1093th patent was awarded after he died in 1931. He systematized innovation and finding commercial applications for technology, and is credited with creating the first industrial research and development laboratory. “The value of an idea lies in the using of it,” he once said.

After making improvements to the telegraph in the late 1860s, he developed the first practical incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, electric batteries, and local electric power generation and distribution systems. He founded more than 200 companies, including Edison General Electric, which later became the General Electric Company, and is today the sixth largest business in the United States.

Edison’s tremendous productivity and success were due in part to the climate he created for his employees, as well as his style of working, Caldicott concluded. He developed new materials and valued diverse ideas, she said, and viewed each unsuccessful attempt as a step that took him closer to finding a solution. He encouraged his employees to keep notebooks to record ideas, make drawings, and brainstorm, as he did. Instead of narrowing down ideas to find one solution, they came up with many solutions to test.

He read widely, equipping his laboratory with an extensive library, and believed in sharing findings to stimulate new work—a principle that led him to fund a new weekly publication on physical science and invention proposed by science writer John Michels.

“In 1880, Thomas Edison financed the establishment of the journal Science, which about 20 years later became the official journal of AAAS,” noted Al Teich, who retired recently as a senior policy adviser at AAAS. “Sarah Caldicott’s relation to Edison, on top of the timeliness and importance of her subject, made her lecture a unique occasion for AAAS.”

Caldicott identified particular traits in Edison’s work style, which she calls “The Five Competencies of Innovation,” that individuals and businesses can cultivate. They include being focused on a range of solutions; drawing upon different approaches and fields of expertise; not getting distracted or upset when things go wrong; using small interdisciplinary teams of people to work on projects; and finding applications for ideas and developing business models that meet customer needs.

While he did look for ideas outside his expertise, Edison began by drawing upon systems with which he was familiar and applied the technology for new uses. In the post-Civil War reconstruction period, for instance, the insurance industry began booming. When he observed that most of the employees in an insurance office spent their time carefully copying pages of legal clauses over and over, Caldicott said, Edison realized there was a need for more efficient document duplication. He used mechanisms similar to those used in telegraph machines to make small perforations in a sheet of paper as the user wrote with a special electric pen. After a roller pressed ink through the holes, a readable copy of the document was created. He sold many of the pens before selling the patents on that technology, which eventually led to the mimeograph machine.

“Before that, no one had thought about copying things,” Caldicott said. “No one had looked into the future and said ‘Will we be writing forever, for hours?’”

Edison also focused on ways to identify or create a market for his inventions, including new ways of selling a product. He used at least six different business models for his various products or ideas, including selling phonographs through licensed operators; selling electricity through central power stations; and generating patents in his research and development laboratory that he could license or sell.

“Today, we often overlook this as an innovation structure,” Caldicott said. “How can we use the way we actually go to market, the way we actually reach people as a way of differentiating our products and services? We can look at eBay, [or] Netflix—the Internet allows us unique opportunities to create new business models.”

The key to increasing innovation is consistently using all these practices at all levels of a business, Caldicott said. “Edison’s mindset, his processes, the way he put teams together, the way he organized his company, and communicated with his employees all contributed to his innovation success and offer us models that we can use today.”

Kathleen O’Neil

10 January 2012