Thomas Edison: Inventor or Innovator?

Historian Ernest Freeberg sheds light on era that sparked America’s preeminence in modern research and development.

Historian Ernest Freeberg at Computer History Museum

Historian Ernest Freeberg said, "[Thomas] Edison invented a new style of invention, a coordinated program of scientific research and product development" that paved the way for "a world where we assume invention is not just something that comes along when someone has a great idea, but this is a force that can be shaped and controlled." Freeberg is the author of "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America."

The tech companies of Silicon Valley consistently strive to produce better, faster and cheaper products and services, many of which people may not yet know they want or need. Today’s systematic approach to technology research and development, according to historian Ernest Freeberg, can be traced to Thomas Edison, the fabled 19th century inventor of the light bulb.

Freeberg points out that more than the light bulb, Edison’s contribution was the first commercially practical incandescent light, which he patented in 1879. The incandescent bulb successfully illuminated the world in large part because Edison forged an enormous ecosystem to support it, including electrical distribution, switches, meters and a new craft of lighting design. In his new book, “The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America,” Freeberg explores how the advent of ubiquitous light, driven forward in part by Edison’s innovative and entrepreneurial skills, gave rise to unforeseen industries and uses, many of which continue to proliferate today.

Freeberg recently appeared at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to discuss his book and how Edison’s approach to illumination prevailed over rival systems such as Charles Brush’s arc lighting. After leaving the stage, Freeberg sat down to discuss the legacy of Edison’s R&D approach, its visible impact on the tech industry today, the challenges of controlling IP and the myth of the lone inventor.

You write in the book that “Edison invented a new style of invention, a coordinated program of scientific research and product development.” Did that style impact the way that today’s technology companies pursue research and development?

That basic concept has been transformative. We live in a world where we assume invention is not just something that comes along when someone has a great idea, but this is a force that can be shaped and controlled with the proper investment of capital. That invention is something which is not a gift from the intellectual gods but is something that human beings can make happen.

It’s changed a lot since Edison’s day, of course. Universities have come to play a much more central role. University-trained researchers and the government play a role in directing development in a way that didn’t exist in Edison’s day. But the basic concept that invention is a permanent part of life and that whatever social problems we have can be solved with more invention emerges in this late-19th century period. As different as Edison is from the world we live in now, I think it’s fair to say that he pioneered that basic idea.

Edison has more than a thousand U.S. patents to his name. What was the IP landscape like in Edison’s time?

People often ask why America was more inventive than the rest of the world, and why these great ideas that were generated by European scientists managed to take hold in the U.S. and create all these products. One of the obvious reasons is the American patent system rewarded small improvements on existing systems. It made it much cheaper than in Europe for the average American to get a patent. I think it was a tenth of the cost of what it would have been in England, for example.

The Age of Edison book cover

In "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America," historian Ernest Freeberg explores how the advent of ubiquitous light, driven forward in part by Edison's innovative and entrepreneurial skills, gave rise to unforeseen industries and uses. Courtesy Penguin Group

Some suggested that every American man would be embarrassed to go to his grave without a patent to his name. That was part of the American dream in this time period. The government played an important role in creating a patent system, and many other countries came to the U.S. and said, “This is the key to their success. We need to revise our patent system to encourage this type of grassroots experimentation.”

The people who owned these patents were deeply jealous of each other. Inventors were very uncomfortable rivals with one another. It really took the financiers to come in and force reconciliation. Otherwise they had ruinous, lengthy patent battles. Edison didn’t win the patents on his own light bulb until about a year before the patent was up. People like J.P. Morgan came in and created General Electric and said, “We’re going to pool the patents and we’re not going to compete with each other.” Essentially they created a duopoly — General Electric and Westinghouse — as the two great forces and the age of an individual inventor battling it out against the other inventor was sort of eclipsed by much wider corporate control of the patent system.

Do you see Edison as an inventor or as an innovator?

He had to be both. That’s a really interesting part of Edison. We think of him as the person who had the great idea, but that idea was meaningless unless he could also convince someone to invest in it and then sell it to the world and make it alluring. He had to make electricity not just better in a utilitarian sense but also something that consumers longed to own for themselves. So he had to be an innovator in that sense. He had to go out and create the companies that actually built the first iteration of the central power station, the lamp factory and the various design companies. They were all Edison companies initially. He took ideas that were already there, he consolidated them, and he figured out how to put them into the marketplace in a competitive way.

How crucial were Edison’s entrepreneurial skills to advancing his technological advances?

In the same way that we, at least in the popular culture, associate the entire digital revolution with a few people — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — that’s the same sort of thinking we have about Edison, that somehow Edison gave us the light bulb. That’s a powerful tool to sell a product even though it kind of distorts our understanding of the way that invention actually works.

What role did the emergence of standards play in the adoption of electrical lighting?

John Hollar and Ernest Freeberg at Computer History Museum

Historian Ernest Freeberg (right) joined John Hollar, CEO and president of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to discuss his book, "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America" and how Edison's approach to illumination prevailed over rival systems such as Charles Brush's arc lighting.

The early illumination engineers had to work out what they were talking about. They had to agree on standards. They created a professional organization that really allowed the industry to take off. You get people with a lot of access to the technology, a sense of an open field of inventiveness, but you add to that university training, professionalization and a push toward international standards and that really caused an explosion in ideas about lighting.

Are notions of the lone inventor and having a “eureka moment” just myths?

Any great idea is building on other great ideas of those around them. On any of these inventions since Edison’s time you can see that many people are converging on the same idea. There’s an element of genius, but there’s also an element of chance. Very often two people will solve the problem in perfectly adequate ways but only one of them wins in terms of the marketplace.

Edison launched this thing [the light bulb] into the world and it went in all sorts of directions that he could not possibly have anticipated. The invention process is much more complicated than creating this object and it having an obvious use in the world. I think the same thing has happened with digital technology. Those who developed this amazing tool [the Internet] really just released it into the world and it is evolving in all sorts of ways that nobody could have predicted.

Thomas Edison: Inventor or Innovator?

Historian Ernest Freeberg sheds light on era that sparked America’s preeminence in modern research and development.

Historian Ernest Freeberg at Computer History Museum

Historian Ernest Freeberg said, "[Thomas] Edison invented a new style of invention, a coordinated program of scientific research and product development" that paved the way for "a world where we assume invention is not just something that comes along when someone has a great idea, but this is a force that can be shaped and controlled." Freeberg is the author of "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America."

The tech companies of Silicon Valley consistently strive to produce better, faster and cheaper products and services, many of which people may not yet know they want or need. Today’s systematic approach to technology research and development, according to historian Ernest Freeberg, can be traced to Thomas Edison, the fabled 19th century inventor of the light bulb.

Freeberg points out that more than the light bulb, Edison’s contribution was the first commercially practical incandescent light, which he patented in 1879. The incandescent bulb successfully illuminated the world in large part because Edison forged an enormous ecosystem to support it, including electrical distribution, switches, meters and a new craft of lighting design. In his new book, “The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America,” Freeberg explores how the advent of ubiquitous light, driven forward in part by Edison’s innovative and entrepreneurial skills, gave rise to unforeseen industries and uses, many of which continue to proliferate today.

Freeberg recently appeared at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to discuss his book and how Edison’s approach to illumination prevailed over rival systems such as Charles Brush’s arc lighting. After leaving the stage, Freeberg sat down to discuss the legacy of Edison’s R&D approach, its visible impact on the tech industry today, the challenges of controlling IP and the myth of the lone inventor.

You write in the book that “Edison invented a new style of invention, a coordinated program of scientific research and product development.” Did that style impact the way that today’s technology companies pursue research and development?

That basic concept has been transformative. We live in a world where we assume invention is not just something that comes along when someone has a great idea, but this is a force that can be shaped and controlled with the proper investment of capital. That invention is something which is not a gift from the intellectual gods but is something that human beings can make happen.

It’s changed a lot since Edison’s day, of course. Universities have come to play a much more central role. University-trained researchers and the government play a role in directing development in a way that didn’t exist in Edison’s day. But the basic concept that invention is a permanent part of life and that whatever social problems we have can be solved with more invention emerges in this late-19th century period. As different as Edison is from the world we live in now, I think it’s fair to say that he pioneered that basic idea.

Edison has more than a thousand U.S. patents to his name. What was the IP landscape like in Edison’s time?

People often ask why America was more inventive than the rest of the world, and why these great ideas that were generated by European scientists managed to take hold in the U.S. and create all these products. One of the obvious reasons is the American patent system rewarded small improvements on existing systems. It made it much cheaper than in Europe for the average American to get a patent. I think it was a tenth of the cost of what it would have been in England, for example.

The Age of Edison book cover

In "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America," historian Ernest Freeberg explores how the advent of ubiquitous light, driven forward in part by Edison's innovative and entrepreneurial skills, gave rise to unforeseen industries and uses. Courtesy Penguin Group

Some suggested that every American man would be embarrassed to go to his grave without a patent to his name. That was part of the American dream in this time period. The government played an important role in creating a patent system, and many other countries came to the U.S. and said, “This is the key to their success. We need to revise our patent system to encourage this type of grassroots experimentation.”

The people who owned these patents were deeply jealous of each other. Inventors were very uncomfortable rivals with one another. It really took the financiers to come in and force reconciliation. Otherwise they had ruinous, lengthy patent battles. Edison didn’t win the patents on his own light bulb until about a year before the patent was up. People like J.P. Morgan came in and created General Electric and said, “We’re going to pool the patents and we’re not going to compete with each other.” Essentially they created a duopoly — General Electric and Westinghouse — as the two great forces and the age of an individual inventor battling it out against the other inventor was sort of eclipsed by much wider corporate control of the patent system.

Do you see Edison as an inventor or as an innovator?

He had to be both. That’s a really interesting part of Edison. We think of him as the person who had the great idea, but that idea was meaningless unless he could also convince someone to invest in it and then sell it to the world and make it alluring. He had to make electricity not just better in a utilitarian sense but also something that consumers longed to own for themselves. So he had to be an innovator in that sense. He had to go out and create the companies that actually built the first iteration of the central power station, the lamp factory and the various design companies. They were all Edison companies initially. He took ideas that were already there, he consolidated them, and he figured out how to put them into the marketplace in a competitive way.

How crucial were Edison’s entrepreneurial skills to advancing his technological advances?

In the same way that we, at least in the popular culture, associate the entire digital revolution with a few people — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — that’s the same sort of thinking we have about Edison, that somehow Edison gave us the light bulb. That’s a powerful tool to sell a product even though it kind of distorts our understanding of the way that invention actually works.

What role did the emergence of standards play in the adoption of electrical lighting?

John Hollar and Ernest Freeberg at Computer History Museum

Historian Ernest Freeberg (right) joined John Hollar, CEO and president of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to discuss his book, "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America" and how Edison's approach to illumination prevailed over rival systems such as Charles Brush's arc lighting.

The early illumination engineers had to work out what they were talking about. They had to agree on standards. They created a professional organization that really allowed the industry to take off. You get people with a lot of access to the technology, a sense of an open field of inventiveness, but you add to that university training, professionalization and a push toward international standards and that really caused an explosion in ideas about lighting.

Are notions of the lone inventor and having a “eureka moment” just myths?

Any great idea is building on other great ideas of those around them. On any of these inventions since Edison’s time you can see that many people are converging on the same idea. There’s an element of genius, but there’s also an element of chance. Very often two people will solve the problem in perfectly adequate ways but only one of them wins in terms of the marketplace.

Edison launched this thing [the light bulb] into the world and it went in all sorts of directions that he could not possibly have anticipated. The invention process is much more complicated than creating this object and it having an obvious use in the world. I think the same thing has happened with digital technology. Those who developed this amazing tool [the Internet] really just released it into the world and it is evolving in all sorts of ways that nobody could have predicted.