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Perfecting the art of invention

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leadership Skills

Executive Leadership is pleased to welcome Thomas Alva Edison, who perfected the art of invention in 19th century America and touched off a technological revolution in the 20th century.

EL: In 1878, you visited the workshop of William Wallace, who invented a prototype electric arc light that pulsed current through two tall carbon sticks to create a bright beam. What did you think of it?

Edison: It was marvelous. However, I beat him making the electric light. I did not think Wallace was working in the right direction. Mark my words: I will light the entire lower part of New York City using a 500-horsepower engine.

EL: You have other competitors besides Wallace: George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, the Thomas-Houston Electric Co. What do you make of them?

Edison: Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size, and that deadly alternating current won’t even power a motor.

EL: Do you have adequate facilities and talent to carry out your work?

Edison: I am planning a new laboratory in West Orange, N.J. It will be one story high, all of brick. I will have the best-equipped and largest laboratory, and the facilities will be incomparably superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention. The machine shop will be sufficiently large to employ 50 men, and the other parts of the complex will accommodate 30 men.

EL: Will this new operation slow you down or speed you up?

Edison: Inventions that formerly took months and cost large sums will now be done in two or three days at small expense, as I will carry a stock of almost every conceivable material. And with the latest machinery, a man will produce 10 times as much as others do in poorly stocked laboratories. This will establish Edison General Electric as the leader in electrical inventions.

EL: Has your plan received a thumbs-up from Drexel Morgan, and are you to lead the entire operation?

Edison: You are aware, of course, that I do not fly any financial kites, or speculate, and that the works I control are well led. In the early days of the shops at Menlo Park, it was necessary that I should largely manage them—first, because the art had to be created, and second, because I could get no men who were competent in such a new business. But as soon as it became possible, I put new managers in charge so that I could lead the company in its entirety.   

EL: What’s ahead? Your plans?

Edison: My ambition is to build up a great industrial works in the Orange Valley, starting in a small way and gradually working up. The laboratory supplying the perfected inventions will need special machinery; my plan is based on making only inventions that require small investments—and that they be of a highly profitable nature.

EL: What is your vision for the long term?

Edison: I honestly believe I can build up work in 15 or 20 years that will employ 10,000 to 15,000 persons and yield 500% to the pioneer stockholders.

— Adapted from research by Time magazine and Rutgers University.

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