Published: 04/07/2012 09:45 AM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily
Thomas Edison’s record as an American inventor seems hard to beat if Hollywood wants a historical hero — he pioneered practical electric lighting, spawned the sound recording industry and created the first commercial system for motion pictures. “The Wizard of Menlo Park” captured the public imagination with his awe-inspiring inventions and swam through a sea of celebrity as easily as Tony Stark, the superhero Iron Man of comics and films.
But Edison’s greatest legacy may be as a founder of modern innovation, the process of turning an invention idea into a fully realized and patented commercial product. His early knack for entrepreneurial success gave him the wealth and investor backing to transform small inventor’s workshops into the huge research-and-development laboratories of today. He even helped found U.S. military labs such as the Naval Research Laboratory.
“In one sense he represents the common image of the heroic inventor,” said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison papers at Rutgers University, not far from where Edison labored in his central New Jersey lab. “But what I think made Edison so successful and significant was that he transformed invention through the R&D laboratories and created a modern style of innovation.”
Most of Edison’s knowledge came from being home-schooled by his mother and from continuing self-education throughout his life. But he recognized the importance of placing Ph.D. chemists and trained engineers alongside machinists and fellow inventors to realize his creations inside huge labs.
“What Edison does is graft an electrical and chemical lab onto a machine shop,” Israel told InnovationNewsDaily. “That’s what so important at Menlo Park — he creates a new kind of invention institution.”