Monday, March 10, 2014

How to be like Edison

In 1901, Orison Swett Marden published a book called "How They Succeeded" which contains interviews with several famous and successful people. Chapter 14 was entitled; A Talk with Edison.  It has some very interesting insights into Edison's motivations and how he viewed life. (I have slightly edited and rearranged some of the quotes to group them by topic. ~ df)  We will come back to these in a future post about the definition and practice of Design Thinking, but for now, let's just get inside Tom's head;

On Edison's Library and Drive to Learn

Marden: "The library at the laboratory is one of the most costly and well-equipped scientific libraries in the world. The collection of writings on patent laws and patents, for instance, is exhaustive.  At a glance it shows the breadth of thought of this man who grew up with hardly any school education."

Marden: "You were anxious to learn?"

Edison: "Yes, indeed.  I attempted to read through the entire Free Library in Detroit, but other things interfered before I could accomplish that."

Edison on Invention

Marden: "Do you believe that invention is a gift, or an acquired ability?"

Edison: "I think <inventiveness> is born in...  Some people may be perfectly familiar with a machine all their days, knowing it inefficient, and never see a way to improve it."

Marden: "Are your discoveries often brilliant intuitions?"

Edison: "No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.  I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident - except  the phonograph.

The inspiration for the phonograph came as I was singing into the mouthpiece of a telephone.  The vibrations of my voice caused a fine steel point to pierce one of my fingers held just behind it.  That set me to thinking.  If I could record the motions of the point and send it over the same surface afterward, I saw no reason why the thing would not talk.  I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my assistants the necessary instructions, telling them what I had discovered.  That’s the whole story.  The phonograph is the result of the pricking of a finger."

"I have always kept strictly within the lines of commercially useful inventions.  I have never devoted any time to electrical wonders, valuable only as novelties to amuse the public."

Edison On Business

" sure of the practical need of, and demand for, a machine, before expending time and energy on it.

"...give people something they want and will pay money to get."

Edison on work and his own inventions

“…for fifteen years I have worked an average of twenty hours a day.

Marden: "What makes you work?  What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle? 

Edison: "I like it.  I don‘t know any other reason.  Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am uneasy until it is finished; and then I hate it."

Marden: "Hate it?"

Edison: "Yes, when it is all done and is a success, I can‘t bear the sight of it.  I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light."

Marden: "You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life; "working eighteen hours a day".

Edison: "Not at all.  You do something all day long, don‘t you?  If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and everyone is doing something all the time -- walking, reading, writing, or thinking.  The only trouble is that they are doing a great many things and I do only one thing.  If they took their time and applied it in one direction, to one object, success is sure to follow.  The trouble is that people do not have one object to fix their attention and let everything else go.  Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application."

It's Not About the Money

Marden: "Were you good at saving your own money?"

"No.  I never was much for saving money.  I devoted every cent, regardless of future needs, to scientific books and materials for experiments."

"You believe that is an excellent way to succeed?"

"Well, it helped me greatly to future success."

Edison: "One might think that the money value of an invention is the reward to the man who loves his work.  But, speaking for myself, I can honestly say that’s not so.  Life was never more full of joy to me, than when, a poor boy, I began to think out improvements in telegraphy, and to experiment with the cheapest and crudest appliances. But now that I have all the appliances I need, and am my own master, I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success - the application."

There are some very interesting Design Thinking ideas buried in Edison's remarks. But I think the story of how he picked a wife may illustrate that he was a bit weak in the empathy department;

"The idea of the great electrician's marrying was first suggested by an intimate friend, who told him that his large house and numerous servants ought to have a mistress. Although a very shy, Edison seemed pleased with the proposition and timidly inquired whom he should marry. The friend, annoyed at his apparent want of sentiment, somewhat testily replied; "Anyone."

One day, as Edison stood behind the chair of 16 year old Mary Stillwell, a telegraph operator in his employ, Edison was very surprised when she suddenly turned round and said; "Mr. Edison, I can always tell when you are behind me or near me."

It was now Miss Stillwell's turn to be surprised. With characteristic bluntness and candor, Edison looked her full in the face and said; "I've been thinking considerably about you of late, and, if you are willing to marry me, I would like to marry you."

They were married two months later, on December 25, 1871. Edison was soon upset to discover that Mary would not be his partner in his science laboratory. Early in 1872 he wrote in a notebook, "My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!"

Tom and Mary did have three children, including Marion Estelle Edison, who he nicknamed "Dot", and Thomas Alva Edison, Jr., nicknamed "Dash".  Mary died in 1884. He married Mina Miller in 1886 and had three more children with her.

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