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THE REAL GENIUS OF THOMAS ALVA EDISON

March 1, 2003
The recent news that GE is looking for buyers for its lamp division got me thinking about the man who founded that company and his many contributions

The recent news that GE is looking for buyers for its lamp division got me thinking about the man who founded that company and his many contributions to the world.

Many of us know that Thomas Alva Edison was the inventor of the incandescent lamp, phonograph and one of the earliest movie cameras. Some of us who studied the Wizard from Menlo Park during our school days might remember that although he was deaf from age 12 and had very little formal schooling, he went on to become one of the most prodigious inventor in the history of the world, holding patents for over 1,093 inventions.

It's mind-boggling to think that one person could have invented the incandescent lamp, phonograph, an early motion picture camera — as well as 1,090 other inventions. The modern-day equivalent would be something like one person inventing the personal computer, cell phone and DVD player.

The work ethic that Thomas Edison employed to develop these inventions and the marketing savvy that he used to promote them are equally impressive.

Edison's 20-hour days in the lab are legendary, but I think two quotations from him can inspire us even more:

In describing the mistakes and frustrations of his year-long search for the right filament for his incandescent lamp, he said, “If I find 10,000 ways that do not work, I have not failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.”

And while Thomas Alva Edison was by any measure a mechanical genius, he attributed much of his success in life to what he called “stick-to-it-iv-ness”:

“Genius is one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. As a result, a genius is often a talented person who has simply done all of his homework.”

The man was also a master marketer. Edison invented things, but he also realized that to make money, he had to sell them, too. During his early days as a telegraph operator, he met many of the journalists who filed their stories over the telegraph at the Western Union telegraph office where he worked, and he learned what was news to them.

He knew how to put on a show for newspaper reporters, too. When they visited his New Jersey laboratory, he would be ready for them with promotional announcements of his latest inventions.

After inventing the incandescent lamp in 1879, he realized the lamp would be nothing without large-scale power systems to bring electric lighting to the masses. To light the offices of the most influential financiers of his time, he built the first commercial electric generating system in lower Manhattan in 1880 to power a mile-square area that included the home of the New York Stock Exchange, the nation's largest newspapers and the business of J.P. Morgan, an early investor in his company.

A PBS documentary on Edison said that to create demand for his electric system, he launched a publicity campaign worthy of P.T. Barnum. The PBS program said Edison hired a minstrel performer to hand out pamphlets at a Philadelphia exhibition and that as he tap-danced across an electrified floor, his helmet would light up in rhythm to his feet. And in New York City, Edison had 400 men parade through Manhattan wearing light bulbs on their heads. Power lines ran down each man's sleeve to a horse-drawn, steam-powered generator.

All electrical contractors can learn from Edison's marketing campaigns, as well as his work ethic. Whether you are one of the industry's founding fathers or the president of a family-owned electrical distributorship, sweat and persistence go much further than dumb luck.

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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