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Why Thomas Edison’s greatest invention wasn’t the lightbulb

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The following is an excerpt from “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas,” by David Burkus. Burkus is the founder of LDRLB, assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University and a SmartBlogs contributor. Image and excerpt reprinted by permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from “The Myths of Creativity” by David Burkus. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Burkus.

Thomas Edison didn’t try ten thousand times before inventing the lightbulb.

That notion is false on three different fronts. Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb so much as he refined it. There weren’t ten thousand attempts to find the right filament to use in the lightbulb, and, perhaps most important, it really wasn’t Edison doing all that trying. The story of Edison alone in a workshop experimenting with ten thousand different materials isn’t true even though it was most likely first told by Edison himself. Edison may have spread this story to help sell his invention, but the story’s popularity has caused it to become a potentially dangerous myth.

In tracing the origin of the lightbulb, historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel compiled a list of twenty-two people who invented incandescent lamps before Edison even filed his first patent for a lightbulb. John W. Starr, who filed a caveat for a U.S. patent in 1845 but died shortly afterward, was among those who preceded Edison. When Edison filed his first patent related to electric lamps, it was rejected because the patent office felt that it infringed on Starr’s preexisting patent. After making a few adjustments to his design, Edison filed a patent titled “Improvement in Electric Lights” in 1878. At the time, however, the right filament was still an unsettled issue.

Depending on the source, Edison tested seven hundred, one thousand, six thousand, ten thousand, or some other number of filaments before finding the perfect materials. According to the Smithsonian, Edison tested sixteen hundred different filaments—everything from coconut fiber to human hair—before settling on carbonized bamboo fiber. It’s difficult to know the exact number of attempts, however, as much of the exaggeration was circulated by Edison himself when speaking to the press. Edison told of a worldwide search for the perfect fiber in order to advertise the rigor of his invention process and the superiority of his new lightbulb. Moreover, whatever materials were actually tried, it’s highly likely that Edison wasn’t the one experimenting with them. The bulk of Edison’s work on electric lightbulbs came as a result of his greatest invention: Menlo Park.

Edison got his start in the telegraph industry, where he created numerous improvements to the telegraph and generated some considerable revenue by selling the patents for those improvements.In 1876, Edison took that money and built a new complex for himself in the rural town of Menlo Park, New Jersey, a stop on the main line between New York City and Philadelphia. In its six years of operation, Menlo Park generated over four hundred patents and became known as the “invention factory.” Over time, the popular image of Edison alone in his giant facility tinkering away on breakthrough innovations developed, despite the fact that it in no way resembled what actually happened in Menlo Park. Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone. The team referred to themselves as “muckers” and overtook the upstairs space of Edison’s Menlo Park warehouse.

As their worked progressed, the team of muckers quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name. They found that when they advertised their ideas or tried to sell themselves to potential clients, their audience seemed to like the notion that a single individual had authorship of their ideas, especially when that person was Edison. In the ongoing struggle for new investors, many of the muckers found that the celebrity associated with Edison’s name was too valuable to ignore. So they began turning Edison the man into Edison the mythological lone genius. Edison alone drew better publicity than Edison and the muckers. Even the popular story of Edison’s “worldwide” search for the perfect “lament likely began as a publicity campaign designed to draw attention to and generate interest in the lightbulb. In fact, Edison had already found the bamboo fibers in a folding fan lying in his workshop when the story began to circulate. To those outside Menlo Park, Edison was a lone genius responsible for an astonishing array of inventions. But according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s longtime assistant, those inside knew that “Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.”

The lesson of Edison and the lightbulb isn’t to take credit for other people’s work; it’s that creativity is a team sport. Sometimes your greatest contribution as a creative leader isn’t to forge ahead doing the work that made you into a leader. More often, great leaders, like great innovators, become great because of their ability to coordinate the efforts of a team. Most of the problems in business will not be solved by the efforts of just one person, or even a small group. Instead, they’ll require a team of “muckers” collaborating and experimenting until they find the right solution.