INNOVATION: HOW WE GOT HERE

THEN THERE WAS LIGHT


Originally published on Medium 2/1/21


In this article series, I share excerpts and stories from my recently published book, The Optimizer, Building and Leading a Team of Serial Innovators. The first electric lamp was created in 1802 by the English serial inventor Humphry Davy. Davy improved upon Alessandro Volta’s work of generating electricity and solved a perennial problem, escaping darkness at will. The charm of candlelight has appeal, but as the sole source of illumination, it hardly compares to electric lighting. The world was in wonder of Davy’s new light, but it was incredibly bright and burned out quickly. People needed a better solution. Dozens of scientists made thousands of attempts, and seventy-seven years later, the light bulb was commercially viable and patented in the first known Research and Development (R&D) lab, built by Thomas Edison, the father of modern innovation. Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb; rather, through thousands of attempts with his team, he made it accessible to anyone with one dollar. “Edison’s genius was improving on others’ technologies and making them more practical for the general public,” Historian Patrick Kiger shared. His most important innovation, however, was the process of modern invention itself. Inside his R&D invention lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he was the first to apply the principles of mass production to the solitary inventor model by bringing scientists, machinists, and designers together to work side by side. This groundbreaking model got all of these skills working together in one building, generally with the purpose of improving upon existing ideas.

Edison’s superpower was to see failure as a learning opportunity and to push onward. As he once shared, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” We don’t often appreciate Edison’s relentless love affair with problems until we experience a black out. Edison understood that he needed a team to work through this critical process of learning and thousands of steps to get to the answer. And, we must not overlook his ability to work behind the scenes, enabling and inspiring a small army to always push forward, time after time. During your next frustrating power outage, ponder Edison’s ten thousand attempts!


Thomas Edison inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his father, and he inherited his world view from his mother, a teacher, who taught him to “read good books, quickly and correctly.” During his career he founded fourteen companies, including the predecessor to General Electric and patented 1,093 inventions. When he passed away in 1931, the New York Times estimated the value of the industries based on his inventions at fifteen billion dollars. In 2020, the value of this would be $393 billion. This is wealth creation through optimization at its best. Edison never quit learning or asking larger questions, nor did he come up with new ideas in a vacuum. He constantly evolved his work through numerous attempts until he found true value. He had a strong business sense from his father to understand if he was going to commit the time to make something, it had to be something people wanted. He didn’t set out to make a better candle. Edison’s vision was much larger. He sought to illuminate the world and was willing to put in the work to make it a reality. I hope you enjoyed this post. Next week I’ll discuss the impact emotions play on change initiatives. Fearing change and innovation is far from new and how as a leader this journey for your team cannot be left to chance.


If you enjoyed this article, you can find other stories from my book here: www.johncsaunders.com or you can buy my book on https://www.amazon.com/Optimizer-Building-Leading-Serial-Innovators-ebook/dp/B08Q2YVQC8, or sign up for my newsletter to be a part of my community at www.johncsaunders.com/blog

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