Lessons Learned from Thomas Edison's Life
by Ron Kurtus (revised 19 January 2022)
Thomas Edison is considered one of the greatest inventors of all times. Much of his fame was a result of being an astute businessman and technical manager. He established a company and hired talented engineers and scientists to develop various products that he thought would be viable in the marketplace.
In his first 39 years, Thomas Edison established his reputation. Then after he turned 40 years old, he had a few other major inventions, but also suffered a loss in the area of electric power.
Questions you may have include:
- What were the influences around him that shaped his career?
- What personality traits did he have that helped make him successful?
- What lessons can I learn from Edison's life?
The lesson will answer those questions.
A most important factor that influenced Edison was the times in which he lived. The late 1800s and early 1900s was an era of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and the world. Numerous scientific discoveries were being made and becoming more important in people's lives.
Someone with mechanical abilities and scientific disciplinesuch as those Edison possessedhad the opportunity to invent or improve on many needed devices. There were many great inventors at this timeespecially in the area of electricity applicationssuch as Tesla and Westinghouse.
(Note: Interestingly, the present-day opportunities in computer software development parallels the days of Edison and Tesla and the inventions they made.)
Although Edison would have been successful in whatever era he lived, he was fortunate to be born in a time where the opportunities for electrical inventions were so rich. He also was born in good family circumstances and was well-trained by his parents in scientific method and work habits.
Personality and work habits
Various biographies of Thomas Edison provide hints at the personality traits and work habits that made him a great inventor. But they also show a dark side to his personality, as a result of his drive to succeed. Both can be lessons to many readers.
Edison was curious, meticulous, competitive and hard working.
Curious about technical matters
Edison was intensely curious about technical matters. He wanted to master technical skills and the new technologies of his age. He felt the challenge to invent devices or improve upon them.
His insatiable curiosity led him to branch out into fields ranging from metallurgy to plastics to, eventually, the triumphs of the electric light, sound recording, and literally hundreds of other inventions.
Meticulous in his work
Edison was meticulous in his planning. He would make careful drawings of his ideas and inventions. He also kept detailed records of his business ventures. Starting when he was 20 years old, Edison recorded in notebooks his growing body of experimentation. Edison was considered a very diligent man.
Edison was highly competitive and wanted to win and beat others. Many of his projects were competitions with other scientists and laboratories. Not only were potential profits at stake, but also his reputation as the world's greatest inventor.
This sense of competition took a dark side when he cheated Nikola Tesla out of a promised commission when Tesla was working for him. He also did much to discredit Tesla, whom he considered an opponent in a race for the title as greatest electrical inventor. Of course, there were also financial reasons for the competition, since Tesla's concepts could cost Edison's companies countless dollars.
Ambitious and hard working
Edison was highly ambitions and obsessive. He was able to concentrate intensely and for long hours on achieving a goal or solving a problem. He put in 16-hour days fulfilling new contracts. Even at age 65 Edison, still worked a 112-hour week.
Edison would often take "cat naps" throughout the day, allowing him to spend long hours in the laboratory.
Fiercely competitive, Edison was a workaholic long before the term was invented. His first wife rarely saw him. He would work 60 hours straight on a project that caught his fancy and frequently juggled four or five ongoing projects at once.
Edison's slogan was:
Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Edison recognized business opportunities, was an entrepreneur, a promoter, and an organizer.
He had the entrepreneurial spirit to continually start businesses or create new projects. He felt these were new worlds to conquer. With his good business-sense, he saw what was needed and went about to provide it.
Visionary and saw needs
Edison was daring and a visionary. He saw the future in the new technologies of the day. He also saw what companies needed in technical improvements, and he sought to provide those things with his inventions.
Able to organize
An important trait of Edison was that he was able to organize and get people to work for him. He had a genius for assembling a team of men totally dedicated to his goals. He was able to convince others to back his projects or to join his team, before the invention of the phonograph made him world-famous.
His main method for developing an idea was to hire the best engineers and scientists in the field to do the work for him. He was very well organized in these methods.
Promoted to get funding
He was a great promoter of his ideas. He sought publicity, which both fed his ego and helped him get more funding for his projects. For example, he used his breakthrough in making a usable incandescent light to promote using his system of providing electrical power.
Edison also knew that in order to develop his ideas he had to raise money or get financial backing. One strategy he had was to make the front pages in the newspapers concerning his inventions.
When he had a new invention, he would present it to the public in a way that attracted the maximum attention and publicity. Edison would put together dazzling presentations and experiments to display his inventions.
Although he came up with the ideas for his many projects, he also took credit for the work of his employees on those projects.
Family life suffered
Because of Edison's intense focus on his work, he had a strained family life. His first wife seldom saw him, because of the long hours he spent in his laboratory.
His son, Thomas Jr. became so estranged from his celebrated father that he dropped the Edison surname and went around under various aliases. Also, Edison cut off relations with one of his daughters because she married an officer in the German army.
There are lessons to be learned from Edison's life. Although Thomas Edison obviously had a gift of mechanical abilities, he had learned skills that others can apply to their lives. He was:
- Curious about the world around him
- Knowledgeable about scientific method
- Meticulous in his planning and record keeping
- Ambitious and hard working
- An organizer of others to assist him
- A promoter of new technologies
- A good businessperson
On the negative side, there are characteristics of Edison to avoid. He:
- Was overly competitive
- Worked too hard, thus neglecting his family
- Took advantage of his workers
- Did not give credit to others
Can you think of anything else?
Resources and references
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Lessons Learned from Thomas Edison's Life