Invention Isn’T Always Sudden Inspiration; Sometimes It’S Plain Hard Work

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I recently stumbled upon a book about Thomas Edison that tells things that are usually left out. It’s called “Edison: His Life and Inventions.” Written in 1910 before people began taking for granted the wonderful things Edison invented, it is a great book, one you can get free online at the Gutenberg site.

Like everyone else, I guess, I always thought that great inventions were 90 percent inspiration and 10 percent perspiration. Guess what? You can turn that around where Edison was concerned. As great as his mind was, it was his ceaseless hard work that accounted for his successes. Quite often by just refusing to quit trying, he did things that experts said were impossible.

I also learned that for a man of such great genius, Edison was incredibly humble. How did he get started? He got a job selling newspapers as a pre-teen and just took it from there, trying everything he could think of to be a success at whatever he did.

Including working 24 hours a day.

Edison was the ultimate never-say-die experimenter, the one who succeeds where others fail because he keeps on trying new ways of doing something until he finds one that clicks. And therein lie some great tales.

You know what surprised me as much as anything? Whenever you and I see a photograph of Tom Edison it’s always a picture of an old man with gray hair nearing the end of his life. But Edison did some of his best work in his 20s, work that brought him fame at an age when most of us are just getting started, work that earned him the money to do even greater things.

Edison tells a story that happened in 1873 when he was just 26, a time when his inventions were turning the world of telegraphy on its ear. Believe it or not by that young age he had invented the ticker tape machine, a system that allowed up to eight transmissions over a single pair of wires, a method of transmitting over 700 words a minute instead of the bare bones 45 words a minute an ordinary telegrapher could tap out, and many other patentable improvements in telegraphy.

He was called into the office of a businessman to talk about one of his patents. Still thinking of himself as an ordinary working man, he had already considered how much his invention might be worth, doing it in a way that shows how humble he was. He simply added up the many, many hundreds of hours he had worked on his invention, decided how much he was worth an hour, did the arithmetic, and came up with $5,000.

Shy about asking too much when the businessman asked him what he wanted for his invention, he suggested that the man make him an offer. Can you imagine how stunned poor Edison was when he was offered $30,000, the equivalent of $588,000 in today’s dollars?

You may have heard of Jay Gould, the poster boy for 19th century Wall Street robber barons. As a reminder, Gould was the man who plotted to corner the gold market, and would have done it if the government hadn’t realized — almost too late — that if he succeeded he might cause a crash the likes of which the nation had never before seen.

One day, young Tom Edison found himself standing before the desk of one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet — Jay Gould. Once again, he found himself being asked what he wanted for one of his inventions. Again, he had added up the thousands of hours he had worked, done the math, and come up with what he thought was quite a hefty sum, but he rather shyly asked Gould to make him an offer.

The offer nearly floored him.

One hundred thousand dollars! Nearly $2,000,000 in 2014 dollars.

Barely able to talk, Edison agreed, but only if the $100,000 was paid to him at the rate of $6,000 a year over the 17 years of his patent.

Gould was thrilled, of course. He instantly realized that the interest on $100,000 at the current 6 1/2 percent bank rate would more than pay for the whole purchase, thereby allowing him to buy the invention for nothing.

They agreed, and off went Edison, happy as could be.

You know why?

Are you ready for this, Johnny?

“My ambition was about four times too large for my business capacity, and I knew that I would soon spend this money experimenting if I got it all at once, so I fixed it that I couldn’t. I saved 17 years of worry by this stroke.”

Can you believe that such a great man could be so humble?

And if you think that’s something, wait till next week.


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