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A Knowledge-Centered Approach

Indeed, of his many colorful attributes, Edison is probably most famous for maniacal persistence, frequently working 90100 hours per week. “I never quit til I get what I’m after,” he reportedly answered when asked the key to his success, a variation on his famous maxim that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Nowhere is Edison’s tireless persistence as evident today as in a rarely viewed attic closet at the West Orange facility. Walking past rows of shelves holding uncatalogued artifacts on the main building’s top floor, Gerbauckas opens the closet door to reveal a staggering display. Here, on shelves and floor, stand scores of phonograph horns of every size and shape. Some are round, others angular; some are short and squat while others are elongated, standing as much as six feet tall. This rogues’ gallery of rejected prototypes offers a rich visual testament to Edison’s approach: to try out every design he could conceive of.

Extremely hard of hearing, Edison was often frustrated upon not getting loud enough or clear enough sound from his phonograph machine. Edison’s archivists have found, Gerbauckas recounts, that the inventor would sometimes even clamp his teeth onto a phonograph horn as a hearing aid, feeling the sound vibrate through his jaw.

Yet the archives reveal that the conventional emphasis on Edison’s persistence has overshadowed an equally important attribute: a “wild enthusiasm” for any events out of the ordinary. This openness to new inputs and associations would often elude modern laboratories that attempted to build on Edison’s approach.

His openness was reflected in his ability to quickly capitalize on emerging scientific knowledge. Rather than wrestle with advancing scientific theory himself, he would comb the published literature for ideas that sparked his interest. This strategy, coupled with independence from corporate hierarchy, gave Edison extraordinary flexibility to regularly reinvent and reconfigure his laboratory.

Carlson notes that “the lab’s arrangement was in constant flux,” with Edison often redirecting efforts at its various branches and rearranging their thin, non-load-bearing wooden walls to accommodate the new ventures. On one occasion late in 1900, for example, when it was clear that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison had invested both financial and technical resources was failing, he returned to the West Orange lab on a weekend, cleared out a room in the main building, and laid out a detailed plan to completely redirect the team’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on some of the same equipment and materials.

Israel reports that he has uncovered new evidence of Edison’s enormous talent for appropriating techniques that may have failed in one instance and using them to great effect in another. For example, Edison’s unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. In repeated attempts to maintain a constant level of electrical resistance in a prototype of a lengthy transatlantic cable, Edison simply couldn’t solve the problem. Many months later, in his work on the telephone, Edison used the principle of variable resistance to help design a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing soundwaves of a caller’s voice-a technique that would serve as the industry standard for the better part of a century.

“The further we get into examining Edison’s papers,” Israel says, “the more cross-fertilization we recognize, with favored techniques and conceptual models transferred from one problem to the next.” While all modern R&D efforts must struggle to balance creative freedom with practical goals, it increasingly appears that Edison’s success owes much to the freewheeling, flexible framework in which his highly directed efforts thrived.

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