Edison's new approach to invention

Historical Notes
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AT THE end of his life the American inventor Thomas Edison seemed a figure from a bygone era, an un-tutored genius whose cut- and-try method of invention had given way to organised scientific research in industrial laboratories.

This view of the inventor was certainly evident in the appraisals of his work offered by some of the country's leading directors of industrial research in an issue of Science that appeared shortly after his death in 1931. In fact, Edison himself was a central figure in the transition from invention into industrial research.

Edison's style of invention grew out of a tradition of shop invention that is much more sophisticated than the simple myth of the heroic lone inventor. Shop invention was a co-operative enterprise in which skilled operatives, superintendents, machinists, and manufacturers drew on practical experience to design, build, and refine new technology.

Edison learned about shop invention while working as a telegraph operator during the mid-1860s. He found that the telegraph operating rooms and machine shops provided informal technical schools and experimental laboratories.

The importance of the machine shop to inventive work became evident to Edison as a young telegraph inventor when he was forced to delay tests of an invention because of a wait for delayed instruments. In his subsequent contracts for experimental work Edison made sure to include provisions for machine shop and other experimental facilities. His first significant telegraph contracts enabled him to establish manufacturing shops.

In his shops Edison began to surround himself with a core group of machinists and experimental assistants. In addition he began to undertake a programme of research in electromagnetism and chemistry that led him to begin reconceptualising the process of invention. Edison's new approach to invention was spurred by his visit to England in the spring of 1873 to demonstrate his high- speed automatic telegraph system.

During these tests he encountered unexpected problems due to underground lines and submarine cables in use in Britain that produced complex electrical conditions. Following his return to America, Edison began to purchase a large amount of electrical and chemical equipment, including some of the more sophisticated electrical testing apparatus he had seen in Britain. By mid-1875, when he gave up manufacturing to devote his full attention to invention, Edison's experimental shop included a well-equipped physical and chemical laboratory. The following year, the shop became merely part of the much larger laboratory he built in Menlo Park, New Jersey. By the time Edison abandoned the Menlo Park laboratory in the early 1880s, he had pioneered a new style of research and development in which work was sub-divided amongst a large staff of experimenters and machinists organised into experimental teams having access to the best library, experimental apparatus, and machine tools available.

Edison was the first to realise that he could make invention a more regular and predictable process. The model he developed influenced not only his contemporaries, but also corporate leaders at firms such as General Electric and AT&T who in the early-20th century would establish a new model of science-based industrial research that supplanted Edison's. Edison never recognised how profoundly industrial research had changed by the end of his career and failed to adapt. As a consequence the man who might have been remembered as the founder of American industrial research became instead a symbol of a mythic American past in which an unschooled empirical genius could astound the world through hard work and persistence.

Paul Israel is the author of `Edison: a life of adventure' (John Wiley, pounds 19.50)