Almost everyone can name the man that invented the light bulb.
From This Story
Thomas Edison was one of the most successful innovators in American history. He was the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” a larger-than-life hero who seemed almost magical for the way he snatched ideas from thin air.
But the man also stumbled, sometimes tremendously. In response to a question about his missteps, Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, explores the inventor’s prolific career in his new book, Edison and the Rise of Innovation. The author offers new documents, photographs and insight into Edison’s evolution as an inventor, not to forget those creations that never saw wild success.
“One of the things that makes Edison stand out as an innovator was he was very good at reducing the risk of innovation—he’s not an inventor that depends on just one thing,” DeGraaf says. “He knows that if one idea or one product doesn’t do well he has others…that can make up for it.”
Chances are you haven’t heard of Edison’s botched ideas, several of which are highlighted here, because the Ohio native refused to dwell on them. DeGraaf says, “Edison’s not a guy that looks back. Even for his biggest failures he didn’t spend a lot of time wringing his hands and saying ‘Oh my God, we spent a fortune on that.’ He said, ‘we had fun spending it.’”
The automatic vote recorder
Edison, who made an early name for himself improving the telegraph, moved to Boston in 1868 to expand his network and find investors. By night, he worked the wires, taking press reports from New York for Western Union. By day, he experimented with new technologies—one of which was his first patented invention, an electrographic vote recorder.
The device allowed officials voting on a bill to cast their decision to a central recorder that calculated the tally automatically. Edison dreamed the invention would “save several hours of public time every day in the session.” He later reflected, “I thought my fortune was made.”
But when he took the vote recorder to Washington, Edison was met with a different reaction. “Political leaders said, ‘Forget it,’” DeGraaf says. There was almost no interest in Edison’s device because politicians feared it hurt the vote trading and maneuvering that happens in the legislative process (much in the way some feared bringing cameras to hearings, via CSPAN, would lead to more grandstanding instead of negotiating).