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Edison's Style and Method of Invention

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This article is to continue a discussion that emerged on the thread about anti-union ads.

Thomas Alva Edison is rightly hailed as one of America's geniuses. He invented everything from sound recording, to motion picture cameras/projectors to incandescent glow lamps and the power systems necessary to light them up. His style is very much his own and he several things going for him. He could concentrate as few others could. He also needed very little sleep. And he was -smart-. I found a rather good summary of Edison's style on the wikipedia. Please have a look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edisonian_approach and in particular the summary given by Thomas Hughes (a historian) under


Edison's intellect and mode was not like that of Newton or Einstein who were inclined to develop general theories. Hughes points out that Edison worked on particular applications and did not develop general theories about the inventions he and his team created. Edison was interested in inventing and producing his his inventions. He made use of theories that were at hand to him and when no theory was available, he did systematic hunt and try. This is how he developed metallic filaments for his incandescent glow lamp. Edison also worked on systems. So he not only invented a glow lamp (which was invented earlier and independently by John Swan in England), he produced a system of generating the electricity and carrying the current to the point of application. Swan did not do this.

Edison's style was very American. America did not become home of theorists (with a few notable exceptions) until it inherited the cream of Europe's science community just prior to WW2. Edison was first and foremost a -practical man-. He was not interested in general results, rather he concentrated on specific products which he could produce and sell.

I guess one could contrast Edison with Einstein. Einstein, did not start his scientific career in some German university. He worked several years at the Swiss Patent Office and he was no stranger to practical (and sometimes impractical) inventions. But his heart and soul was committed to finding out how the universe worked. At Einstein put it, he wanted to read the Mind of God. Even so, Einstein had over 20 patents in his name.

Edison created a team of top-notch engineers and craftsmen. He inspired them, the goaded them, he brainstormed with them (as you will see if you read the above reference article). He created one of the earliest and most effective industrial R and D head-shops in the world. Einstein was closer to being the isolated thinker, although he had no qualms about picking the brains of some close friends who did have university connections to find out what applicable mathematical techniques he could make use of. But Einstein was at his best alone and at his writing tablet or blackboard. Edison was a bottom up man and Einstein was a top down man.

Consider another interesting pair of differing intellects. Michael Faraday, who had barely a line of mathematics to his name and James Clerk Maxwell who in addition to being on of the most brilliant theoretical physicists was a top of the line mathematician. Faraday was both bottom up and top down. Maxwell was mostly top down. Faraday started off as a bookbinder's lad and working in a book binding shop gave him access to many books on science. Faraday was a poor boy and could not attend advanced schools (the English class system made it very difficult for poor boys to get to university). Faraday was an autodidact and he got the attention of Humphrey Davie one of England's top scientist. H.D. gave Faraday a job and that is how Micheal Faraday bootstrapped himself into the English scientific establishment. Faraday was one of the greatest experimentalists of all time. In addition he had a fantastic ability to -visualize-, a characteristic the Edison also had. Faraday's ability to visualize compensated for his lack of mathematical background. Faraday was not locked into the Newtonian view of interacting bodies. Faraday's came up with what Maxwell turned into the field concept, one of the foundation stones of modern physics. The colaboration between Faraday and Maxwell was one of the most fortunate in the history of physics. Out of Faraday's experimentation came the first electric motor and with Maxwell's superb theoretical mind the theory of electrodynamics, as we know it, came to be.

Now who was Edison most like? Faraday or Maxwell? Faraday for sure. Edison found his Maxwell in Nikola Tesla who in addition to be an inventor and as close to a wizard as ever there was, was a theoretical genius as well. Unfortunately the association between Edison and Tesla did not turn out as happy as the association between Faraday and Maxwell (neither of whom were businessmen and neither of whom had egos on steroids). Nikola Tesla** with his first rate theoretical talent developed the superior form of electric power generation and movement of current from generator to point of application. Edison, in addition to being focused also had a stubborn streak and he refused to see the virtue of alternating current. Edison invented direct current generation and that was his baby and, as far as he was concerned, there was no other. Even geniuses like Edison, can go off the track. But so did Tesla. Tesla blew two fortunes trying to develop wireless broadcast power transmission. He failed at that. Edison had his d.c. obsession and Tesla had his wireless power obsession.

In any case Edison was the quintessential bottom up practical scientist and inventor. People like Newton, Maxwell and Einstein were mostly top down. Newton, it should be noted was not just a theoretical genius. He too was a practical inventor. His greatest applied/experimental work was in optics. Newton invented the reflecting telescope with a parabolic light receiver. It is the prototype of most of the great telescopes of the world, including radio telescopes. Where ever one sees parabolic dishes pointing to the sky, there is the spirit of Newton.

I want to make it plain that the bottom up vs top down approaches are not a better/worse kind of thing. Both are necessary for progress in the natural sciences and they correspond to differences in how people think. Among the great bottom up men you will find Lavoissier, Faraday, Charles Darwin* and Mendele'ev who formulated the periodic table of elements by empirical investigation. There was no quantum physics or Pauli Exclusion Principle to guide Medele'ev. The periodic table is an example of brilliant empirical work. It was the springboard for modern chemistry. Leo Szillard was like Faraday. He was a top down bottom up man. Leo Szillard patented the chain reaction (actually a specific design to achieve a chain reaction). Another bottom up man who never received the praise that was due to him in his lifetime was Gregor Mendel, a priest, who spent years studying plant heredity. He invented the gene concept, but as a result of his systematic and minute study of plants. Darwin never had the gene concept, so he could not correctly specify the mechanism of variation upon which natural selection works.


*Charles Darwin wrote at least as many words on barnacles as he did on natural selection.

** Nikola Tesla was also the true inventor of radio, more so than Marconi.

Edited by ruveyn ben yosef
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ruveyn, thanks for the excellent posting, I really enjoyed it!

The interesting thing about Faraday is that he discovered the law of electromagnetic induction and he invented the motor/generator that employs it. What would be do with out motors and generators? They make modern life so much better. Humphry Davy was a brilliant chemist who studied batteries back when they were brand new. He took Faraday under his wing and became his mentor. Little did he realize how Faraday would blossom.

Btw, Edison was strongly influenced by Faraday. He studied a lot of Faraday's work.

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Feynman seems to be an example of someone who was both. Brilliant when it came to theory, but also a hardcore empiricist/scientist when it came to practical matters in pretty much all aspects of his life.

I'm not sure what you mean by the bottoms up/top down distinction though. I do think there's a distinction between 'theoreticians' who discover results which may not have direct real world application, and 'experimentlists/inventors' who are more concerned with making practical things. But Tesla was both - he wasnt just a theorist, he was a great inventor too. And many of history's other great minds have been first-rate at both 'theory' and 'real life' - Feynman/Gauss/Archimedes/Wittgenstein for instance.

I think there are certain people who you get the impression would be effortlessly brilliant at quite literally anything they attempted, and not just within their chosen field. With people like Edison I get the feeling that (while they were great at what they did), they were ultimately 'normal' people, who happened to be extremely clever/hard-working. Whereas with someone like Tesla/Wittgenstein there seems to be an almost other-worldly sort of intellect which gives the impression that it could have done anything it wanted. Its like there's a qualitative difference in how their minds worked rather than just a quantitative one - I get the feeling I could somewhat understand what was going on inside Edison's head, whereas someone like Wittgenstein is a mystery that probably wont ever be fully understood. I suppose this is the difference between being literally a genius, and 'just' being exceptionally clever.

Edited by eriatarka
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