Did Thomas Edison Actually Personally Invent Anything?
In the late 1800’s Edison formed Edison Laboratories at Menlo Park, which can be described as “the first industrial research laboratory”, and founded many other companies including General Electric. Edison may not have personally invented much of note outside of the industrial research lab itself (which is slightly ironic), but the improvements to existing inventions made by him and his team did change the face of the world as we know it.
Below we clarify what Edison actually did, why he was important, and why the real story is perhaps more interesting than the media and even Edison himself would have you believe.
FACT: Some people claim “Edison never invented anything”, but that is just as misleading as saying “Edison personally invented everything credited to him”. The truth is simply more nuanced, and more in-line with how things actually work. See “the lone inventor myth“.
Who Was Thomas Alva Edison?
Edison’s main passion was chemistry, he experimented and invented from his early years until his dying days. Edison may not have been the best inventor in the room, but he did believe his ideas were the best, and more than anything, Edison was driven to bring his ideas to life. He accomplished this by collecting the best inventors he could (and their patents), rounding up capital from the world’s richest families, and marketing himself as “a sole genius” (to give weight to the Edison brand name).
It was Edison himself who created the image of “Edison the prolific inventor”, a role he played for the media happily, but despite this, in almost every case in practice, Edison played the role of head of R&D and PR, and not the role of the sole inventor. Edison accomplished his goals so well, both in terms of self-promotion and brining his products to market, that we still discuss his impact today.
A quick history of Edison the man and Edison the company.
Edison the Inventor
To understand Edison the inventor we first need to understand that most the inventions credited to Edison are actually Edison and his team of inventors improving on old ideas. Even his early inventions from his 20’s, which he worked on first-hand like the stock ticker, are improvements to old ideas. Edison “inventions” that fit this general pattern include the light bulb, storage battery, electric light, movie camera, power generator, etc. (see a full list of Edison’s 1,093 US patents here, see 9 inventions Edison did not make here, see Thomas Edison’s Most Famous Inventions here).
Edison always had a passion for inventing, but more so he had a knack for seeing the potential in the inventions of others and organizing them into a machine.
Why invent the light bulb when you can hire Sir Joseph Wilson Swan and buy his patent and create the Edison-Swan Company? Ultimately, we ask this question under the glow of electric light thanks to Edison… and Swan. The story is the same for most of Edison’s inventions.
Invention’s credited to Edison.
We can certainly call Edison an inventor, but to claim “Edison personally invented everything” is just as wrong as saying “Edison never invented anything”.
Edison’s team, together, with the help of folks the Vanderbilt and Morgan families (and sometimes Tesla), formed a single entity of rotating bodies which, headed by Edison, was as a whole, “one of the most prolific inventors of all time”. Edison himself is simply more of a figurehead and polymath, than a tinkerer (although he was on the lab floor getting his hands dirty too).
The History of Thomas Edison – a Short Story.
FACT: Edison didn’t invent the stock ticker, but he did personally improve on the device. The stock ticker was invented in 1867 by Edward A. Calahan at the American Telegraph Company. Two years later, in 1869, a young Edison created one of the earliest practical stock ticker machines. Edison’s Universal Stock Ticker allowed alphanumeric characters and had a printing speed of approximately one character per second. This story is a mirror of most Edison stories, he isn’t the first, but he does play an important role in the process. See the story of Edision, Calahan, and the ticker at Rutgers.
TIP: Edison didn’t claim to have personally invented the things history credits to him (he may have eluded to it to bolster his image, but I struggled to find instances of him actually lying in my research). Consider the following record from Edison Laboratories, it clearly says “a product of Edison Laboratories”, not a product personally invented by Mr. Edison. This general theme is true for just about every invention.
Edison the Business
In 1876, Edison founded what could be called “the first industrial research laboratory”, a lab in Menlo Park New Jersey now called “Edison”. We could even perhaps consider this lab to be the first true American startup (operating similar to how Alphabet, formally Google, does today: acquiring tech ideas, hiring the greats, and using its capital to make them “practical”). In ways, it is here that Edison invents the modern process of research and development that brings products from idea to mass market.
If we don’t consider the New Jersey lab a startup, we can look instead to the Edison Electric Light Company (1878) in New York City, which was funded by investors like J. P. Morgan and the members of the Vanderbilt family. Or perhaps it was when Edison (and friends) brought it all together as the “General Electric Company” in 1890.
Despite the facts, some media has continued to paint Edison as a “lone genius” who invented the light bulb single-handed (actually his team improved an existing light bulb), while other media (typically media favoring Tesla) tends to underplay Edison’s role in the industrial era. In truth, like the story of direct current, Tesla, Morgan, and Edison General Lighting (the company that merged to become General Electric) the story is far more complex than can be summed up by some absolutist view of Edison’s character or accomplishments.
The History of Thomas Edison – The Wizard of Menlo Park. A full documentary.
TIP: Saying Edison invented all the inventions in his name is like saying Ford created the car and hand designed every Ford. The truth is simply somewhere in the middle.
FACT: In July 1877, already leading a team of inventors, Edison invented the phonograph (said to be his favorite invention). It’s hard to remove Edison’s team’s involvement from the story, but the stories we do have show a very hands-on Edison. At this point he already has a reputation as an inventor. After displaying the machine Edison even received a letter from one professor, who called the “idea of a talking machine ridiculous” and advised Edison to protect his “good reputation as an inventor among scientific men.” It is inventions like these which earn him the title of “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” See the story of Edison’s Tinfoil Phonograph at Rutgers.
FACT: Steve Jobs didn’t invent the Apple Computer, that credit goes to Steve Wozniak. Jobs said, “let’s make a computer“, Woz actually invented it. Jobs didn’t invent any apple products, but he did lead the Apple team and contribute ideas. In the same way that Jobs is important, but perhaps over-credited at times in regards to his inventions, so is Edison. Both Jobs and Edison were great with marketing and great with IDEAS, not actually at creating inventions. Do you understand the difference?
History Doesn’t Actually Credit Edison With “Inventions”; You’re Thinking of the Media
It may be surprising to some to learn that history doesn’t even really credit Edison with “inventions”, when we look at the history of Edison (in text books, documentaries, or say on WikiPedia) it’s always “he improved this idea” or “he acquired this patent”. We just need to remember that when history says “he”, they really mean the team of inventors working under Edison at his direction. Edison himself was busy coming up with ideas, securing patents, and running the team.
Thomas Alva Edison from 1922. He cared about inventions until his last years.
FACT: The above may seem shocking at first, but really it isn’t too strange. There aren’t new ideas, just recombinations of old ones. In the case of Edison his large team, awesome self-marketing, impressive bankroll, status in America, and penchant for grabbing up patents is what makes him one of the more interesting and important figures in American history.
TIP: In all inventions we have something called “multiple discovery“. This is a theory that describes the fact that inventing things, whether it be gleaning collective intelligence or buying a patent, is a team effort. Since discoveries are a team effort, we typically get multiple inventors inventing things in and around the same time. Very often only the most famous is credited.
If Edison Wasn’t Just “an Inventor”, What Was He?
“Edison” was an inventor, but he was also a businessman, an ideas-man, a chemist, and the head of the first industrial research laboratory (a polymath if you will). In this respect we can think of, one of his main backers, J P Morgan as one of the first important venture capitalists in America (even though Morgan was English). On the other had, Tesla, who worked with both Edison and Morgan, was an inventor in every sense of the word (despite his lack of focus on the business end of things). Tesla himself was the inventor of a few inventions credited to Edison, but even in these stories (which we won’t get into here, but see the fluoroscope) Tesla tends to be improving on old ideas. Perhaps this is ultimately a statement on the nature of ideas, more than a statement on Edison or Tesla.
Ultimately, history likes to confuse the roles of these men and what it means to be “an inventor”. But understanding the truth, and perhaps giving a shout out to the countless inventors who worked with them, is a more appropriate form of respect than trying to pin specific titles on figureheads.
Nikola Tesla vs. Thomas Edison [ Orson Welles as magnate J. P. Morgan ].
FACT: Edison held over 1,000 US patents in his name (and over 1,000 foreign). It’s hard to debunk each, but history seems to show that at least some of his most famous inventions were simply other people’s ideas which he patented and improved. There is actually a lack of proof showing he personally invented anything, but early inventions from before he formed his company (like the stock ticker) probably come closest to true Thomas Alva Edison inventions.