Historical Entrepreneur: Thomas Edison

Edison was a businessman of great vision.

We’re embarking on a series profiling entrepereneurs throughout history.  Last time, it was John Jacob Astor, fur millionaire, and today it’s none other than Thomas Alva Edison, every bit the entrepreneur he was the scientist.  Edison amassed a net worth of $12,000,000, which in today’s money would allow him to get a meeting with Mark Cuban.

Edison is responsible for the phonograph, the electric light, and the motion picture camera.  Entertainment and technology in the twentieth century was Edison’s personal gift to all of us.  Without Edison, would there have been rock and roll, night baseball, Cindy Crawford (those giant light bulbs for photoshoots), or Marilyn Monroe?  What one person could have come along to do all these?

What about Edison as a businessman?  Some business partnerships that the Wizard of Menlo Park enacted are alive to this day.  A cool exploration of Edison the businessman from the engineering society IEEE tells us that while Edison definitely considered himself an inventor first and foremost, he also had a business mind.  He was jolted into a capitalist’s mindset early in life, in 1869.  He snagged a patent for a machine that would help congresses and similar entities to punch in their votes via electricity rather than through slow and tedious verbal votes.  Trying to actually sell the technology, he ran into a brick wall, learning that big government didn’t want efficiency.  He vowed always to consider marketability when invested the perspiration that was 99% of genius to him.

Not only did he consider how to make the manufacture of an invention cheaper, which would drive down its price for the consumer, but he also gave close consideration to what the consumer wanted and how they’d use the contraption.  After his patenting of the telegraph system, he went on a spree patenting associated technologies, commenting, “The patents I am now taking are more valuable than those already taken…to secure if possible the science of the thing.  Those I am taking now are commercial.”

Using a discovery to beget an accessory, a related product, was a staple of Edison’s, a commonly-held principle today.

Those who would characterize Edison as an unassuming man of science should consider his rivalry with Nicola Tesla over electricity.  Edison was the owner of patents for Direct Current (DC) and delivered product to New York City in that format.  Tesla introduced the Alternating Current (AC).  The two of them went on the original Coke vs. Pepsi toe-to-toe fight, including a fierce propaganda war between the two.  This involved Edison helping to develop the electric chair, powered by Tesla’s AC, to show how dangerous his competitor’s technology was.  Eventually, AC took over for common usage, but DC is still in use, powering subways to this day.

What powered Edison to prominence before Tesla came along was a team of talented inventors, good facilities, and a knowledge of how to scare up capital, something he’d learned in the trenches in the telegraph business.

He also implemented an approach still much favored today, the think tank, in place at his facilities and always pumping out the brainwaves.  Real Leaders tells us, “He embarked on an aggressive process on investigation to flush out an answer that he knew must already exist, somewhere.”

Several important entrepreneurial concepts were intuited by Edison, who developed his chops first as a newspaper salesmen on trains and then through a lifetime of endeavoring to market the fruits of his amazing mind.