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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Assaying Edison... And His Equals

Management — and money. The innovators' eagerness to make money seems to have been as overplayed as the role of the financiers has been underplayed. Thomas Edison was never much interested in profit. He regarded interest as "the invention of Satan." He lost whole fortunes. The standard line used to be that he was a folksy genius done down by capitalists who could not see further than a week. In fact, more recent scholarship suggests that it was the money men who saved Edison. It was Grosvenor Lowery, a New York patent attorney, who formed the first syndicate of capitalists to back Edison's inventive research. When they went to Menlo Park to see where their money had gone, expecting a demonstration of incandescent lighting, they sat in darkness when the lamps fused. Lowery had the job of coaxing them to keep faith.

One characteristic in common from the robber barons of the Gilded Age through Silicon Valley's teenage tycoons is that all have been cussedly practical and pragmatic. "We have got to come up with something," Edison adjured the men in his Menlo Park lab. "We can't be like those German professors who spend their whole lives studying the fuzz on a bee." The experience of researching the life stories of inventors and innovators, however, does damage to the "Eureka!" concept, the notion that there was one blinding moment of original insight and then the money rolled in. Before the dot-com day, it seems never to have been quite like that. Innovators built on other innovators.

Take John Wanamaker of Philadelphia and New York, who is widely credited with creating the retail department store as we know it today. He replaced the customary haggling of the post-Civil War period by advertising fixed prices, guaranteed low prices, and money-back guarantees. Some of these elements were already manifest in the emporia of Alexander T. Stewart, Rowland H. Macy, Arthur Tappan, and Lord & Taylor; Wanamaker's distinction was to put them all together in a philosophy of service. He did not get it right all at once.

Few do. Indeed, the painstaking nature of much invention and innovation throughout the ages is manifest in a letter Edison wrote in November 1878 to describe his ever-present difficulties: "It has been so with all my inventions. The first step is an intuition — and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise. The thing gives out and then... 'bugs,' as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of anxious watching, study, and labor are requisite before commercial success — or failure — is indeed reached. I have the right principle and am on the right track, but time, hard work and some good luck are necessary too..."

The Edison Electric Light Company, launched by "20 earnest men" in 1878, was the foundation of the General Electric Company, the most marvelous marriage of science and industry, the harbinger of the new age of American commercial supremacy. But what torment Edison had to endure. We live with the product of a successful innovator's genius, and take it for granted, but it is easy to forget the strength of character required to attempt something new and stay with it through the disappointments and the sniggers of mediocrity. In modern times, I think of the derision encountered in their industries, and in the press, by Ted Turner and Allen H. Neuharth when they started, respectively, CNN and USA Today. As the historian Frederic Maitland remarked, it is very hard to remember that what is now in the past was once in the future.

I look forward to celebrating those who took the leap in the dark for all of us — and I particularly welcome any nominations from the discerning readers of strategy+business. Please e-mail them to me at [email protected] and I'll be sure to consider them.

 
 
 
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