Invention Sometimes Is Plain Hard Work, Part 2

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Were you surprised last week when Tom Edison was offered $100,000 for one of his earliest inventions — equal to $2,000,000 today — and said he would only accept it if it was paid to him at the rate of $6,000 a year over the 17 years of the patent?

Want another surprise? He did the same thing with another $100,000 offer for another invention. He was so interested in finding ways to do new things that he knew he would spend the money on experimentation if he took it all in one piece. Edison was not a scientist. He wasn’t out to discover new facts for textbooks, but to create useful machines from the new knowledge he created. He was a true pioneer, one who often had to invent whole new systems so his ideas could be used. When he was working on electric lighting, for example, the world’s greatest scientists and inventors told him he was wasting his time because there was no possible method for the “practical subdivision of the electric light.”

When I first read that statement it puzzled me, as it probably puzzles you. It took me a while to understand it. Only then — for the first time in my life — did I realize what Edison faced when he started work on electric lighting. He not only had to create a practical, inexpensive electric light bulb; he had to create an entire system to power it.

All someone living 130 years ago had then were distribution systems for liquids and gases. How did they work? If they had a large quantity of something — a lake, a river, a huge tank of illuminating gas — they ran it through gradually smaller pipes to subdivide so people could use it. But no one could imagine how you could create a great quantity of electricity, store it somewhere, and divide it up so it could be used. Scientists around the world flatly stated it could not be done.

You see, they did have a form of electric lighting. They put two heavy carbon rods together, ran a very high voltage current through them, and created a brilliant blue arc light, but they could not imagine how anyone could divide up that light for practical use. See how they were thinking?

What Tom Edison did was create every part of an entire system that didn’t exist. His biographer says, “... every [part of it was] new and novel — [generators], switchboards, regulators, pressure and current indicators+, fixtures in great variety, incandescent lamps, meters, sockets, small switches, underground conductors, junction-boxes, service-boxes, manhole-boxes, connectors, and even specially made wire.” (+we would say “voltage and amperage meters”)

That leads to one of the best Edison stories ever because Edison had to become a manufacturer, with all the labor-management issues that go with it.

Wait till you hear this one, Johnny!

Edison said, “When we first started the electric light we had to have a factory for manufacturing lamps. We started a small lamp factory at Menlo Park with what money I could raise from my other inventions and royalties.”

Edison did what no one else would have done. It cost $1.25 ($32 in 2014) to make a light bulb. To get things rolling, he made and sold them for 40¢ ($10 in 2014). Every year he lost money. The first year he got his costs down to $1.10 per bulb. Over three more years he got it down to 70 cents, 50 cents, and 37 cents, but he could not get the cost low enough.

Looking into the problem, he found that one small part of the job, the sealing of the bulbs, had to be done by hand, took 80 highly trained men, and was very slow. Then he discovered that the 80 men doing the job had formed a union, were working slowly because they knew they could not be replaced, and had even forced the office to hire the son of a union member as an office boy who refused to do a lick of work. 

And they threatened to go on strike if the boy was fired!

What did Tom Edison do?

What else, Johnny? He was an inventor.

He invented a machine to do the job. 

Listen to the “rest of the story” told in his own words.

“We discharged the office-boy. Then the union went out. It has been out ever since. I finally got [the cost] down to 22 cents, and sold them for 40 cents; and they were made by the million. Whereupon the Wall Street people thought it was a very lucrative business, so they concluded they would like to have it, and bought us out.”

Tom Edison: Uniquely American genius.

With a sense of humor.

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