Thomas Edison and Innovation

This post originally appeared January 4, 2010 on

The long-lasting light bulb. The phonograph. The motion picture camera. When we think of big successes in innovation, Thomas Edison’s name can’t help but make the list. The man holds 1,093 patents, making him one of the most prolific inventors in the history of the world.

RobotDoll2-Post.jpgBut not all was rosy for Mr. Edison. Despite that large list of successes, there is an even larger list of failures, some of which are quite interesting as they teach some really good lessons. Edison's doll with a phonograph inside it, made me realize exactly how far ahead of his time he was. Had he developed this in the 1980s, when Teddy Ruxpin was all the rage, instead of the 1890s, he might have had a winner on his hands. But in being so far ahead of his time, he ended up more of a loser on this one than a winner.

So what lessons can we draw from this failure of Mr. Edison? First, just because you can build it, doesn’t mean you should. Technology is great, but sometimes something more simple, even just a better manual process, might be more appropriate.

Second, don’t let failure stop you in your tracks. Edison’s failure with the doll happened 40 years prior to his death. He didn’t let this one stop him; he was inventing up until just months prior to his death. Learn from failure and make better decisions next time.

Third, learn timing. You don’t always have to be first, but you do need to be timely. Being there with the right idea or product at the right time is better than being early or late. There wasn’t much Edison could do to wait 90 years for his doll to be viable in the marketplace, but there is nothing to say he couldn’t have created the genesis for the idea and then left that for his heirs to fulfill when the necessary technology had reached a cost and size ratio that was likely to make such a doll a success.

Those are the lessons I got from this article. What did you pick up from it?