7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison- page 5 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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(National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park)

7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison

Despite popular belief, the inventor wasn’t the “Wiz” of everything

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(Continued from page 4)

The service worked well in small clusters of buyers, many of them in New Jersey. Edison refused to let celebrities endorse his product or do much of any widespread advertising; Victoria and Columbia both had much more effective mass circulation advertising campaigns that stretched across the country, something that was “way beyond Edison’s ability,” DeGraaf says. “The company just didn’t have the money to implement [something like that] on a national scale.”

Up until this point, most markets were local or regional. “They’re not operating on a national basis and the success is contingent on very close personal relationships between the customer and the business person,” DeGraaf says—which is exactly what Edison tried to achieve with the club and other plans for the phonograph, including a sub-dealer plan that placed the records and devices in stores, ice cream parlors and barbershops for demonstrations, then tasked the owners with sending Edison the names of potential buyers.

The key to mass marketing is lowering the cost of a product and recovering profits by selling more of it—but “ that was a radical idea in the 1880s and 1890s and there were some manufacturers”—Edison among them— “that just didn’t believe you’d be able to succeed that way,” DeGraaf says.

“Mass marketing today is so ubiquitous and successful we assume it’s just common sense, but it’s a commercial behavior that had to be adopted and understood,” says DeGraaf.

Home Projecting Kinetoscope

After early success with the motion picture camera, Edison introduced a motion picture projector for non-commercial use in 1912, with the idea they could serve as important educational tools for churches, schools and civic organizations, and in the home.

The machines were just too expensive, though, and he struggled to create a catalog of films that appealed to customers. Of the 2,500 machines shipped out to dealers, only 500 were sold, DeGraaf says.

Some of the kinetoscope’s issues mirrored the problems Edison encountered in other failed projects. “Edison is a very good hardware guy, but he does have problems with software,” DeGraaf says. The cylinder player that powered the tinfoil phonograph worked beautifully, for instance, but it was the disc that caused Edison problems; with home theater, the films themselves, not the players, were faulty.

Edison experimented with producing motion pictures, expanding his catalog to include one- and two–reel movies from documentaries to comedies and dramas. In 1911, he made $200,000 to $230,000 a year—between $5.1 and $5.8 million in today’s dollars— from his business. But by 1915, people favored long feature films over educational films and shorts. “For whatever reason Edison was not delivering that,” says DeGraaf. “Some dealers told him point blank, you’re not releasing films that people want to see and that’s a problem.”

“That’s part of the problem with understanding Edison—you have to look at what he does and what other people are saying around him, because he doesn’t spend a lot of time writing about what he’s doing—he’s so busy doing it,” DeGraaf explains. “I think he has impatience with that sort of navel gazing.”

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