Issue 11
Words by

Thomas Edison, tinkerer

23rd May 2023
39 Mins

Thomas Edison is often accused of not having invented the things he gets credit for. He did something even harder: he built the systems needed to get them to market.

Thomas Edison’s reputation is complicated. He is without a doubt the most well-known of all the inventors of his era — possibly ever. Yet, when his name comes up in conversation, the word ‘fraud’ often accompanies it. ‘Edison didn’t even invent the light bulb,’ often quickly follows any mention of his name in conversation. And it’s true, he didn’t. Instead, he was a technical founder, taking existing ideas and bringing them to market.

Edison may not have been the first to any of the big-name inventions he is known for. He was a different kind of inventor. He improved several big-name inventions, made hundreds of the small inventions needed to bring electric lighting to the masses, and was an able — even if at times imperfect — executive when he needed to be, capable of making a massive operation like this work.

As a technical founder, he was extraordinary. However, vital pieces of Edison’s process would be difficult today. Some pieces would often stray into illegality – especially his endless and never pre-approved experimentation. And many of today’s potential Edisons are drawn into academia, with its siloing, lack of a profit motive, and less practical focus.

In this piece, I’m going to tell you the story of Edison’s search for the world’s first, market-viable electric lighting system. In doing so, I hope to explain just how much of a force he was at experimenting to solve his way around any problem. Additionally, I’ll explore how today we may be perversely ensuring that individuals with Edisonian gifts are having their wings clipped.

Portrait taken of the young Edison from around the time of his lighting work.
Image used with permission from the U.S. National Park Service.

Another light bulb tinkerer

‘Eureka,’ Edison wrote in his lab notebook. He had got what he needed from his latest experiment. Now world famous as the inventor of the phonograph, the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ was in the midst of a course of experimentation that was surely his most ambitious to date: developing an economical indoor electric lighting system. Naturally, an effective bulb would be a vital first step in the process.

After much painstaking experimentation, this first domino finally fell in 1879. An experimental filament, some sort of carbon fiber, shone and shone for what felt like forever, lasting over 13 hours. Edison now knew he could make his vision a reality. Making the filament last had previously been the project’s biggest area of technical risk.

Not anymore.

He’d recently told a group of scientists at an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting that he was sure that his previous filament material, platinum, was the answer. He bragged that he had, ‘a metal in a state hitherto unknown, a metal which is absolutely stable at [a] temperature where nearly all substances melt or are disintegrated, a metal which is as homogenous as glass, as hard as steel wire, in the form of a spiral … as springy and elastic when dazzling incandescent as when cold.’ 

He’d even gone as far as to send out 1,400 letters to local governments around the world in search of a supply of the expensive material that suited his needs. But, upon returning, he’d run into a series of issues besides the material’s cost. The filaments had to be wound extremely tightly to achieve optimal radiance. This would be hard to manufacture. A superfine coating of ‘pyro-insulator’ was needed to prevent them from short-circuiting. This made them delicate. And, lastly, they had the tendency to oxidize – causing the bulb to blacken – even in the best vacuums he could achieve. So platinum would never work at scale at the price he needed it to.

That is what drove Edison back to brute-force experimenting his way to another workable filament material, along with his team — ‘the boys’, as he called them — until they had this 13-hour success with carbon fiber. The bulb was not where it needed to be yet. But he believed that they were close enough to start generating fresh hype around the invention.

In the coming months, the breakthrough would be heralded in both newspapers and scientific papers around the world.

But many in the research and invention community did not think much of the headlines. Edmund Morris writes in his biography of Edison, ‘Members of the British electric engineering establishment rose as one to protest the idea that such things could have been achieved by an unschooled American huckster who did not have the decency to wear a beard.’ British electrochemist Joseph Swan announced that he’d already experimented with a carbonized filament in an evacuated glass bulb fifteen years before, and disputed Edison’s patent. But Swan did not obtain the durability he was in search of, and could not explain why, in the fifteen years since, he had not filed a precautionary patent to protect his lamp.

There was a similar reception to the news in France, where the French authority on illumination, Théodose du Moncel, referred to Edison as nothing more than ‘a very ingenious and fecund inventor’ who was not ‘au courant with the subtleties of electrical science’. He wrote about how surely Edison’s carbon filament would degrade when incandescing. He closed with a warning to his readers to be wary of ‘the pompous announcements that come our way from the New World’.

A British Professor at the Royal Institution, John Tyndall, explained why Edison’s claims were being received as they were. To him, Edison and Swan were just the latest in a long line of inventors who had coaxed some kind of incandescent light from an electrical source. This line stretched as far back as Sir Humphry Davy eighty years prior. It was Tyndall’s view, and the view of many like him in the academic establishment, that inventors like Edison and Swan were in search of something that was not there to be found. Eighty years of research had proven that ‘the most economical form of electric light is, and in all probability always will be, the arc lamp’. Arc lamps, which were then used to light places like public squares, generated light by passing electricity across a gap between two electrodes as opposed to a filament – by making a bright electrical spark permanent.

A traditional arc lamp and Edison’s filament bulb.
Western Electric patent (left) and Edison’s 1880 bulb patent (right).

Edison did not mind the anti-Americanism coming from Europe, which he considered unsurprising. However, he was annoyed when fellow Americans, often professors, acted as though they knew more about his invention than he did. In a public letter, Henry Morton, then-President of the Stevens Institute of Technology, referred to Edison’s bulb as a ‘conspicuous failure.’ He believed that anyone ‘acquainted with the subject’ knew that stringing together more and more bulbs meant massive losses in electrical efficiency. To Morton, the fact that famous industrial entities and researchers of the time such as Siemens, Weston, Brush, and Maxim had already failed when trying carbonized materials similar to Edison’s proved that incandescence was a phenomenon that could never last long.

Edison is said to have read this letter in his lab, lit up by eighty-four bulbs operating more efficiently than Morton thought was possible. He said to the reporter watching him, ‘He should investigate first and animadvert [criticize] afterward’.

Edison respected scientific theory, but he respected experience far more. In Edison’s era of academia as well as today’s, many professors had a certain preference for theory or ‘the literature’ over hands-on improvement. Because of this Edison did not care much for professors. He was even known to go on long diatribes, during which he had assistants open up textbooks, locate scientific statements that he knew to be untrue from experience, and quickly rig up lab demonstrations to disprove them. ‘Professor This or That will controvert [dispute with reasoning] you out of the books, and prove out of the books that it can’t be so, though you have it right in the hollow of your hand and could break his spectacles with it.’

Whether the scientific establishment chose to believe it or not, Edison knew his bulb was the all-important first step of what would become his career-defining work.

Late, but effective

This 1879 light bulb work was not the first time Edison had been late to the party but still ended up beating the other inventors who came before him to a big financial prize. Edison was just as happy – or even more so – to take the final step to practical effectiveness and commercialisation as he was to take the first step.

This tendency was on clear display at the 1878 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. He put on an exhibition that proved that, while Bell would go down as the man who invented the telephone, Edison would make it far more practical. The meeting put on a comparative exhibition of calls from Washington to Philadelphia using telephones from Bell and Edison, plus less well-known inventors George Phelps and Elisha Gray. The first three telephones, built on magnetic systems using the previous inventors’ technology, had the weak signals and interference that phone users of the time had come to expect. Edison’s telephone sounded sharp and clear, largely as a result of his new microphone, which instead of trying to power a magnet from the signals sent down the line used an onboard battery to power the receiver microphone, with the sound signals adjusting the battery power up or down. Edison’s microphone, which he licensed to existing telephone systems as a plug-in, was a massive leap in helping the telephone unlock its prodigious business potential.

This is how Edison’s name became popularly associated with the telephone. It was not by getting to the problem first, but by systematically tinkering with the existing telephone technology. In doing so, he took the field to an entirely new level. To ensure the continued success — and personal profit — of his telephone microphone, he retained the manufacturing rights to the invention even after the patent rights were sold to Western Union.

In 1878, with this telephone work squared away, Edison began a course of exploration that would lead to his breakthrough platinum light bulbs – which would eventually get replaced by carbonized filaments and later by bamboo. At this point, while Edison was still overconfidently working with these platinum filaments, he entered into a deal with financiers associated with Drexel, Morgan, & Co. — the bank that became JP Morgan. Edison had to agree to the financiers being majority shareholders, but, in return, they gave him the initial $130,000 ($3.8 million in modern dollars) experimental budget he needed to keep pushing his dream into reality, experiment by experiment. 

His bulb was only the beginning, a proof-of-concept for something much bigger. Something he had been planning all along. 

To Edison, inventions should be, or enable, things that people wanted and were willing to pay for. From the beginning, he conducted his somewhat meandering research with very tangible manufacturing, implementation, and market constraints in mind. These were not loose constraints. He was often on the hook for personally financing, manufacturing, and selling things he invented. This market-guided process was quite different from that faced by the bulk of researchers today, who work mostly in the academic sphere.

Edison’s vision

After Edison’s bulb patent was approved in January 1880, he immediately filed another for a ‘System of Electrical Distribution’. Filing for these so close together was no coincidence. To Edison, it was never just a bulb project. It was a technical business venture on a possibly unprecedented scale. Edison wanted to light up homes all over the world, starting with lower Manhattan.

Bringing the project from dream to mass-market reality would require solving over a hundred technical problems. His was a new bulb that needed to be powered by a generator that did not yet exist at the start of the project, strung up in houses that had no electricity, connected via underground street wiring that was only hypothetical, and hooked up to a power station that had never existed before.

Yet, at the end of two years’ time, Edison would do it. And, just as importantly, the entire venture was profitable by the end of the project’s sixth year.

Edison had almost other-worldly foresight in, first, predicting what technical problems needed to be solved to bring this technology to market and, second, proposing a system that ended up having no technical problems he couldn’t eventually solve. A classic example is this statement from Edison to a reporter in 1878 when the project was just a dream in his head, before either his major bulb or his dynamo discoveries had taken place:

With fifteen or twenty of these dynamo-electric machines … I can light the entire lower part of New York City … These wires must be insulated, and laid in the ground in the same manner as gas pipes … In each house I can place a light meter, whence these wires will pass through the house, tapping small metallic contrivances that may be placed over each burner. Then housekeepers may turn off their gas, and send the meters back to the companies whence they came. Whenever it is desired to light a jet, it will only be necessary to touch a little spring near it. No matches are required.

The same wire that brings the light to you will also bring power and heat. With the power you can run an elevator, a sewing machine, or any other mechanical contrivance that requires a motor, and by means of the heat you may cook your food. To utilize the heat, it will only be necessary to have the ovens or stoves properly arranged for its reception. This can be done at trifling cost.

– Thomas Edison, The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park, 1878.

Almost every single electrical device described in that excerpt had yet to be invented. The invention of dynamos that wasted far less energy while operating, of economically viable bulb filaments, of parallel wiring to enable bulbs to operate independently, and of light switches, electric meters, and more were all just individual, yet-to-be-invented parts of this grand vision.

And some of the details included in his electrical distribution patent were unbelievably specific. Portions of it read as if they are instructions for a field team attempting to lay copper wires from his central dynamo stations to customers’ homes. He’d even gone as far as to include in the patent certain steps on exactly what materials and tools the individuals staffing the distribution centers would have on hand to double-check readings and troubleshoot any issues.

To top it off, when one examines figure 3 in the patent, Edison goes as far as to label the streets in his diagram. One of the cross streets is Broadway and Cortland Street, presumably indicating Broadway Avenue and Cortland Street in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the site of his actual first dynamo station on Pearl Street.

Edison’s electrical distribution system patent.

To call Edison a dreamer would not entirely capture what made success a regular occurrence for him. Edison chose what to invent with larger systems in mind. Prior to inventing his telephone microphone, he understood the technology for existing telephones and their distribution systems and invented something that could be easily plugged into that system. He didn’t just invent an improved dynamo generator to use in his power stations for its own sake, but made one that he knew would help him build towards a more cost-effective electric light company in Manhattan and beyond.  

Today’s research ecosystem makes such broad thinking difficult. Many of our smartest people work in academia, which is heavily specialized. The focus tends to be on internal hierarchical status – getting tenure, becoming a leader in your field or subfield, publishing in the most prestigious journals. Few researchers are trying to build big new institutions or organizations, or provide technical solutions to large sequences of unsolved technical problems.

Even a large deep tech startup like SpaceX, which is very impressive, is not really comparable. After all, we’d been to space many times over the course of many decades before SpaceX was founded. SpaceX has undeniably helped rekindle and expand a bureaucracy-laden field of physical engineering. But to be compared to the Edison Illuminating Company, it would have had to do much of the Apollo program by itself too.  

Edison dreamed realizable dreams. And they were often not small dreams. But it was his ability to solve the technical and business issues required to make his dreams a reality that made him truly remarkable.

Experimentation as a key factor in Edison’s business process

Edison made sure that experimentation took the lead in all parts of the business process. He would use experimentation to innovate on core products, make implementation more economical, and everything in between. 

Edison was no perfectionist who fiddled endlessly. He knew that to make the business side work, things had to be done in a timely fashion. Lighting lower Manhattan was going to be a massive, expensive operation with a lot of moving parts. Sometimes he’d even set business steps in motion before he actually had the technology fully ready — often leaving the financiers in the dark.

Edison employed a talented Swiss mechanic named John Kruesi. Edison felt Kruesi was too objective, and thus made every effort to keep him away from investors. He felt that he could not make Kruesi understand the difference between truth and what he called ‘deferred truth’.

The effect of deferred truth on his project’s timeline was on full display when, in 1879, Edison, who had temporarily paused his bulb work to design a new kind of generator, had to ramp up his bulb work once again. Edison had promised that his bulb factory would begin production in the fall, even though the bulb technology was not manufacturing-ready. So, throughout the summer of 1879, he and William Batchelor — his most trusted lab partner — immersed themselves in round after round of filament experiments, first developing the false start platinum filament, then the carbon, and finally the successful bamboo. An excerpt from the Edmund Morris biography of Edison will give the reader an idea of Edison’s painstaking experimental approach:

For week after week the two men cut, planed, and carbonized filaments from every fibrous substance they could get — hickory, holly, maple, and rosewood splints; sassafras pith; monkey bast; ginger root; pomegranate peel; fragrant strips of eucalyptus and cinnamon bark; milkweed; palm fronds; spruce; tarred cotton; baywood; cedar; flax; coconut coir; jute boiled in maple syrup; manila hemp twined and papered and soaked in olive oil. Edison rejected more than six thousand specimens of varying integrity, as they all warped or split: “Somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop there is a vegetable growth with geometrically powerful fibers suitable to our use.”

In the dog days, as heat beat down on straw hats and rattan parasols, the idea of bamboo suggested itself to him. Nothing in nature grew straighter and stronger than this pipelike grass, so easy to slice from the culm and to bend, with its silicous epidermis taking the strain of internal compression. It had the additional virtue, ideal for his purpose, of being highly resistant to the voltaic force. When he carbonized a few loops sliced off the outside edge of a fan, they registered 188 ohms cold, and one glowed as bright as 44 candles in vacuo. That particular specimen, being cheap Calcutta bamboo, blued at the clamps and went out after an hour or so.

– Edmund Morris’s biography, Edison.

An hour or so would not be enough, but Edison knew they were onto something – potentially delivering the filament material that would improve on platinum and carbon. While still working on the problem in the lab, Edison sent out explorers all over the world in search of the best bamboo — spending the modern equivalent of millions on the endeavor. Böhm, Edison’s glass blower, was also able to find an improved, now-iconic, pear shape for bulbs to better accommodate the bend of the bamboo filaments.

The pear shape of the new bulb (left) could accommodate more bend in the bamboo filaments than the older spherical shape (right).

Throughout this entire process, Edison’s lab experience assured him that the constant failures were getting them closer to something useful. Upton, Edison’s mathematician whom he called ‘Culture’ because of his Princeton polish and academic credentials, still new to the lab and Edison’s ways, remembered thinking that their four months of utterly failed bulb experimentation meant the thing was no good. But that was not always the case in Menlo.

Edison attributed his laboratory successes more to patience and perseverance than any kind of ‘genius’ — a word he hated. Laboratory attempts to understand one specific problem often led to solutions in other areas of the project. At one point, observing filaments under white-hot heat, Edison was able to see that the metals cracked and popped just before melting. Previously, he had thought that bulb-darkening, a separate problem he was having, was the result of an imperfect vacuum. Now, instead, he saw that certain gases seeped out of fusible materials at white heat, as the theory coming from Russian physicist Alexander Lodygin suggested.

This did not solve the bulb-darkening problem, but it led him to the conclusion that his lamps could increase the dissipation of energy as heat and light. Since it was impossible to maintain a vacuum, he could instead focus on maximising the amount of resistance of filaments, meaning more light and heat emitted from them, and less from the copper wires. Wires and bulbs are like different sized pipes in a water system. The amount of heat and energy wastage in wires is driven by the relative diameters. By lowering the diameter (i.e. raising the resistance) where it has a benefit – at the lights themselves – the water (power) would find it relatively easier to get through the main pipes (the cables) where resistance is pure wastage. Edison thought that solving this problem was worth almost blinding himself while staring at the white-hot filaments through the microscope.

When all was said and done — and the right combination of filament material (the final option, bamboo), baking temperatures, coatings, orders of steps, bulb shapes, filament diameters, etc., was found — Edison had a bulb in his lab that could shine for hundreds of hours. And, to top it off, all of the steps involved in this final bamboo filament bulb process could be standardized and put through a manufacturing process at a low enough cost to make this viable — unlike previous iterations of his bulb, which involved extensive hand adjustments.

All of this bulb work was far from the only work happening at Menlo Park. Kruesi, the mechanic who Edison felt was too objective for deferred truth, was given a remarkably detail-oriented job that perfectly suited his skills. He, along with a group of engineers and a team of six diggers, turned the excess land of the lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey — a sparsely populated town of only a few hundred — into a one-third-scale model of Edison’s first lighting district in lower Manhattan. This team tested and re-tested the electricity delivery system, digging up Menlo Park’s red clay to lay and re-lay an experimental conduit system. The team carried out countless tests to ensure that they found materials to efficiently carry the electric current while also keeping the delicate materials safe from water and ever-present New York City rats.

An outline of Edison’s first lighting district. The district was bounded by Wall Street, Nassau Street, Spruce Street, Ferry Street, and the East River. This area, roughly a third of a mile by a third of a mile, was strategically chosen because it contained many of the country’s most prominent banks, newspapers, and high-net-worth individuals.
Image used with permission from Photographic Services of the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc.
An illustration of the entire Menlo Park complex during the winter of 1879.
Image used with permission from the Collections of The Henry Ford.

The entire process was marked by the classic trial-and-error of the Edisonian process. The first subterranean conducting lines and electrical boxes the group laid were completely ruined by two weeks of rain — despite being coated with coal tar and protected with extra wood. While the diggers dug up the failed attempt so the damage could be examined, Kruesi and a young researcher named Wilson Howell studied and tirelessly tested unbelievable numbers of chemical combinations — making full use of the laboratory library and chemical room — until, finally, a blend of ‘refined Trinidad asphaltum boiled in oxidized linseed oil with paraffin and a little beeswax’ was found that protected the electrical current from rain and rats.

The lack of technical problems when the system was deployed in Manhattan can surely be credited to the tireless experimentation of the Menlo team — much of which would not be legal today.

Many of the line items in codes like the U.S. National Electrical Code are based heavily on the state of the technology at the time they were written. These requirements tend to get more specific (rather than less) after each three-year updating cycle. But some small technical innovation could cause this regulation to make much less sense. Take section 200.4(B) in the U.S. Electrical Code. This line item gives a handful of specific dos and don’ts when it comes to installing parallel circuits, but the instructions tend to be specific to how things are already done. While a regulation like this makes sense with the current technology, it is still a hindrance to would-be innovators. For example, as Edison’s lighting project progressed, Edison and Kruesi came up with a new idea that completely changed the electrical distribution structure from a tree-diagram model to a feeder-and-main principle – which resembled four concentric circles – saving the project 7/8ths on its most expensive material, copper. If a regulation as specific as 200.4(B) existed back then, Edison’s innovation would likely have not been ‘up to code’. And that is not because the new innovation was any less safe, but because the language in the original code was overly prescriptive to the status quo. 

Even if it’s worth it for an entrepreneur to lobby the committee in charge of the National Electric Code to include this in their next tri-annual update, there are many small potential inventions where this is probably not the case. For example, section 310.4(A) has a table specifying, given certain temperatures and moisture levels, what thickness is required of a given material to be up-to-code as an insulator. That makes sense and is useful. But, of course, even if you were to discover an improvement to some material where less of that material could somehow be even more protective than before and save you money, each improvement of that sort would need to be re-coded. The juice would not be worth the squeeze in many cases. 

An equilibrium like this might mean that we have doomed ourselves to almost exclusively anticipated improvements in many areas. Even if someone could dream as big and practically as Edison, what would be the point? Attempting to bring to market something with so many unsolved solutions – likely not up-to-code – would be a non-starter in almost all situations. Even if you overcame the technical risks, the chance of ever breaking even is disappointingly small given the regulatory frictions.

Some of Edison’s best scientific work was done when he was inventing his way around sub-problems in ways that would be infeasible with a modern regulator. One classic case of this was his dynamo work – more on that below. But, in general, this kind of workflow happened all across Edison’s operations if he had anything to say about it – and he often had a great deal to say about it.

An Edison company for every step in the process

Edison believed that in order to do things properly, he usually had to do them himself. That meant that a vertically integrated company with himself at its helm. 

The financial backers of the Edison Light Company saw the illumination of lower Manhattan as the company’s last great investment. If the project succeeded, everyone would be begging to license the patents. The financiers, J.P. Morgan among them, saw only excess risk in attempting to lead the implementation of additional distribution systems. Similarly, they believed that they should acquire as many parts from existing manufacturers as possible for the Manhattan implementation.

Edison hated that idea. In his eyes, this whole enterprise had a much higher chance of failure if he and his people were not in charge of its implementation and manufacturing steps. Why would you entrust anyone else to make things that nobody else had ever made — switchboards, regulators, meters, house wiring, feeder-and-main junction boxes, sockets — other than him? ‘Since capital is timid,’ he told the leaders of the main company, ‘I will raise and supply it. The issue is factories or death.’

To Edison, it was never about money. It was always about getting his technology to the mass market and doing it well.

He set up and personally financed smaller new companies, which he would control, to handle most manufacturing and implementation steps. The Edison Machine Works would make the heavy dynamos – which he had invented – for power stations. The Edison Lamp Works would produce mass amounts of incandescent bulbs. The Electric Tube Company made underground conductors. Bergmann and Company provided many newly-invented switches, light fixtures, and other small parts needed for the lighting system – Edison, the primary funder of the company, felt it might make him look distracted to have his name on too many companies. Smaller lighting installations for individual factories and rich individuals — such as J.P. Morgan himself — were installed by the Edison Company for Isolated Lighting. He staffed each of them with one of his trusted lab partners or Menlo Park alumni to ensure that each of the countless technical issues that arose could be worked through as they would in his own lab.

In this same factory, Edison and Batchelor fabricated new, massive carbonizing and annealing ovens for the mass production of filaments. This required the continued work of talented experimenters because, even after a seemingly satisfactory model was developed, the first batch of bulbs from the new line only shone for about 26 hours — as opposed to the 132 hours they had managed to achieve in the lab. The bulb working in Menlo Park was far from the end of the battle. Making the process work at scale was a different beast.

Pivotal inventions, such as the invention of an electrolytic meter that was so simple it didn’t require any current itself to measure current, could be reliably counted on from these Menlo alumni operations. The scientific approach deployed in Edison’s Menlo Park lab was particularly well-suited to solving problems out in the real world.

Inventing along the full stack: Edison’s dynamo

Edison did not think through the lens of any one scientific discipline. He was happy to combine electrical, metallurgical, and chemical knowledge (both practical and academic) along with machining skills to solve whatever problems a project presented him with just because he could. If it could save the project money or his customers would appreciate what came out of the work in some way, why would he not do a little extra inventing if he thought he had a good idea?

In 1879, with an early version of his electric light and Drexel Morgan’s investment secured, Edison – instead of continuing to develop his light – diverted his attention from the light that had attracted the money in the first place and towards electromagnetic dynamos. This was not a diversion Drexel, Morgan, & Co. knew about, but it was one Edison felt was necessary.

Several months after the deal was made, the financiers were finally allowed to visit Edison’s Menlo Park lab. They were dismayed to learn that little work was going on in the lighting department despite their money fuelling the lab’s chaotic expansion.

Edison attempted to explain to them that the tuning-fork-looking thing he was clearly spending his time on was a ‘magneto-electric machine’, which would markedly improve efficiency over existing generators. His belief that he could create an entirely new kind of generator as a side project to his main work was met with disbelief by his funders and even some colleagues. To Edison, this felt like an obviously good use of money and time. Edison wanted as many people to have his lighting system in their homes as possible, and he knew cheaper generation of electric current was important to make that happen. 

Edison’s team set to work, experimenting their way to a generator with as little internal resistance as possible — at the time, those building generators believed instead that maximum output could be achieved when the electrical resistance inside the generator itself was as close as possible to the total resistance across the circuit the generator was powering. Some believe that this was a show of extreme intuition from the ‘Old Man’: the approach worked, proving Edison’s confidence in it right. But the word ‘intuition’ might give the wrong impression. Edison had accumulated an extreme amount of practical metallurgical, chemical, and electrical knowledge as a result of an adult life, which had largely consisted of 18-hour days of constant experimenting.

Some of this ‘intuition’ came from his belief, based on assorted experiments throughout his career, that magnetism followed more electricity-like laws than others building dynamos were accounting for. One of Edison’s former lab assistants recounts a conversation Edison had with Francis Upton, his mathematician, at the start of this work, Edison saying:

Magnetism follows a law just like that controlling electric current. When you put too much current into a wire, you make it hot. And when these other fellows use too many windings of a wire in their magnetic field and too much current for a small cross section of iron, they throttle the lines of force out of the right path.

– Frances Jehl, Menlo Park Reminiscences.

Essentially, Edison believed his competitors’ designs were bad because they were ‘saturating’ their iron with current, meaning no more could get through – it was just wasted as heat. His prior telegraph experiments showed that thicker wires going to electromagnets did not make the magnets more powerful.

Many of the prior experiments and rules of thumb Edison used as his jumping off point for this work, looking at the memoirs of his lab assistant, seem to be much more practical – the way a mechanical engineer or garage inventor would think about things – than scientific in the traditional sense. His explanations, with this dynamo work as well, are littered with sentences like, ‘Did you ever play with a horseshoe magnet when you were a boy? Do you recall the bar that lay across the two ends of the horseshoe?” Then he would describe why the task at hand was exactly like his practical example and how the team could take advantage of that. 

Modern scientists often read Edison’s descriptions of scientific phenomena and point out that they are not always entirely accurate. But Edison cared more for outcomes than descriptions. If his rule of thumb was onto something, and it got him where he needed to go, it didn’t need to be right for precisely the reason he thought it was. When all was said and done with Edison’s electrical work, he would even look back and acknowledge that maybe he never really understood electricity at all:

“Tate, if you want to know anything about electricity go out to the galvanator room and ask Kennelly. He knows far more about it than I do. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion that I never did know anything about it. I’m going to do something now so different and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever done before, people will forget that my name was ever connected with anything electrical.”

– Thomas Edison, Edmund Morris’s biography ‘Edison’

Edison did not blindly believe theories just because they were in a paper or textbook. It seems that he didn’t trust other’s theories unless he’d proven them to work for himself at his lab bench. He read all the scientific journals, but the lab bench was the first and second place he went to uncover practical truths. Over the course of a laboratory lifetime, he steadily accumulated knowledge that he knew to be inconsistent with the theories in the journals.

When the dynamo prototype was finished, it operated so contrary to existing best-practice that Edison was mocked for it. John Tyndall — the physicist to whom discovery of the greenhouse effect is often attributed – wrote in the Journal of Gas Lighting, ‘It is difficult to adequately express the ludicrous inefficiency of the arrangement; but one thing is abundantly certain, and that is that the person who seriously proposed it was wholly destitute of a scientific knowledge of either electricity or the science of energy.’

Edison’s new dynamo.
A Wallace-Farmer direct current generator – an old style dynamo, from 1875.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

This did not bother Edison much. He had the practical results on his side. When putting the dynamo, which many viewed to be a long-legged monstrosity, through its initial tests, he said, ‘it developed so much power that the coil on the bobbin [armature] was torn to pieces and I had to stop.’ Two Princeton researchers were brought out to assess the dynamo and found that it had an internal efficiency of 90% – meaning only 10% of the energy put in was wasted– leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

This is just one example of Edison’s extreme willingness to invent along the full stack, doing whatever he needed to to make his light-bulb invention viable in the market. He felt he could make a new kind of generator that would make his system even more efficient. So he did.

How could we take advantage of a modern-day Edison?

By the end of 1882, only two years after the initial financing by Drexel and Morgan, the Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan would go live — America’s first commercially-run power plant. The station would run without major issues for ten years — other than the one time Edison almost took down the building trying to run an experiment. Just six years after financing, as Edison had foreseen, the whole enterprise was profitable.

Edison was a manufacturer, head of installation, engineer, entrepreneur, researcher, and publicist all in one.

We should appreciate just how great Edison was at his technical craft. It was once said of John von Neumann that, ‘Most mathematicians prove what they can, von Neumann proves what he wants.’ We can think of Edison the same way. If he set his mind to it, there were few individual problems that he could not experiment his way around. Neither of these two is known, within their field, for some flash of brilliance that came out of nowhere. Von Neumann has no theory of relativity or incompleteness theorem to his name in his home field of mathematics. Edison, similarly, was not the original inventor of anything like a light bulb or a dynamo. But, still, both were forces of nature with the uncanny ability to force their way through problems that were there to be solved.

Thinking through what made Edison and his lab great, it is unclear if developed countries like the US or UK have scientific systems that would allow someone with Edison-like abilities to succeed today. 

Regulations on science means that much of Edison’s work would be difficult or illegal today.  But it may be possible to adapt the system so, one way or another, we enable our most visionary engineers, scientists, and technical founders to experiment under more permissive and effective regulatory environments. Here are two ideas that could help with that.

Firstly, we could take advantage of differing regulatory environments and risk-taking appetites abroad to send our talented engineers, with the right idea and skills, to a country that finds the risk of their project worth the reward. Places like the United States or Germany train a large number of the world’s best engineers, but often release them into domestic industries whose regulations inhibit them from ever dreaming anywhere near the novelty and scale that Edison did. Sending more engineers abroad, in a way, would be taking a page out of MIT’s book from the early-1900s. MIT trained its engineers in Boston, and many stayed in Boston and other cities. But, upon graduation, the Institute was also known to unleash many of its most adventurous engineers out West, building up new industrial operations and railroads all over the rapidly expanding and more sparsely populated areas of the US. The challenges of building up and connecting a vast country of mostly nature and empty space proved quite an alluring engineering challenge. Elting Morison, in From Know-How to Nowhere, something of a history of American learning by doing, describes an early railroad engineer’s thoughts, while carrying out a round of surveying, which captured the spirit of these types of engineers:

Standing one afternoon on a promontory, he saw laid out before him a dramatic composition of sheer cliffs, roaring water, and tortuous valley. It was the kind of place where no man had ever thought of putting a locomotive before. Caught between awe and interest, he threw his cap in the air and cried out, “What a place for engineering!” He goes on to explain how, for great American engineers like this, “the task of maintenance was distasteful to them; the simple duplication of building procedures in familiar surroundings was a job for the journeyman; but the application of those procedures in strange and difficult places, such as Russia and South America, was utterly satisfying.

Just because certain problems have been solved in certain developed countries and situations does not mean the solution is simply plug-and-play for the rest of the world. Different countries often have different constraints (weather, terrain, labor costs, material availability, government maintenance abilities and budgets, etc.) which require new engineering solutions. And, if a given sector is not very far along in a given country, certain regulatory bodies may often be far friendlier to inventing along the full stack as Edison did – and had to do. For this reason, places in need of novel engineering solutions to certain problems considered solved in a country like the U.S. may offer great sandboxes in which to spur innovation in a sector. After all, any inventions proven to work abroad can still come home.

In a similar vein, my second idea is that maybe a place like the US could set up experimental economic zones – akin to special economic zones – with differing regulatory regimes for technical research and experimentation. Places like India and China have famously set up special economic zones — in which the often-foreign companies that inhabit the zones are allowed to apply different regulatory codes than the otherwise onerous local ones — to attract talent and foster growth in certain industries. This same tool could also allow more unfettered technical exploration for ambitious engineering projects without needing to send talented individuals abroad to stretch their brains. Edison and his team had the freedom to turn the lawn of their Menlo Park lab into a one-third scale model of the lower-Manhattan lighting district. Maybe an answer is to allow consenting engineers and scientists to sign up for more ambitious work like this, carried out at a safe distance from ordinary citizens.

Finding ways to give ambitious engineers and scientists a true laboratory environment, as Edison had, is vital if we want to dream massive, realizable dreams as he did. We probably have a few Edisons somewhere, but without a regulatory environment that allows their ability to shine, we might as well not have them at all.

The best we’ll get out of them is maybe a new deep tech company that is about two or three technical innovations beyond the previous inventions in their space. Two or three, when we could have a hundred.

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