Mar 11

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman

Today's NYT also had a great article entitled Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman. It focuses on Edison's first popular discovery, the phonograph, and his pioneering use of his own fame as a marketing innovation. It has some fascinating observations on his partial deafness. (He used to bite a piano, so he could hear through bone conduction.) But it also chronicles his missteps, including sticking by an incompatible format, his pursuit of technical perfection over commercial viability, flawed assumptions about popular taste based on his own hearing bias, and the fact that he wouldn't sign famous artists or allow artists on his label to build their own names:

A sales manual from this time laid out the company's defense, which directed the public's attention to "the great Wizard" who personally tested voice samples using techniques of his own devising and selected "those voices which are most worthy of re-creation by his new art." Only the voice, not the reputation, mattered to the Wizard.

...his own companies used his fame as the Wizard to market his inventions, prominently displaying his name and driving off anyone who threatened to infringe the trademark. But he could not abide others - in this case, his own recording artists - using fame, even though much more modest, for their own commercial interests.

But my favorite thing about the article was the picture of Edison in his lab in 1888. This isn't the usual Edison, the famous inventor, but the early entrepreneur, still on his way up:

Thomas Edison in his lab in 1888, from the NY Times, photo credit to US Dept of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site

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Over at O’Reilly Radar Tim O’Reilly wrote about today’s NYT article on Thomas Edison’s early failures in marketing the phonograph.¬† What struck me was the photo that Tim linked in his post.¬† We’ve all had days like this ... Read More

Comments: 3

  Jim S [03.13.07 11:12 AM]

Am I the only one that thinks that Edison looks just like Mark Cuban in this picture?

  Victor Agreda Jr [03.16.07 09:35 AM]

Edison was a bit of a bastard though. As a military advisor he practiced the worst cronyism, and worse, denied contracts based on personal bias. In fact, personal bias appears to be the hallmark of his methods. He greatly slandered Tesla (AC vs. DC), and actually had little stomach for real science. So I would argue the point about technical perfection. Perhaps he had an eye like Steve Jobs for technical innovation (if not marketing), but his scientific methods were lacking. For example, he could have used the scientific method to deduce the proper filament for light bulbs. Instead, he just used brute force-- checking every conceivable material at his disposal. This was a great point of contention between Tesla (who worked for Edison briefly) and Edison.

  Tim O'Reilly [03.16.07 10:10 AM]

Victor, I agree. Edison was reportedly a bastard. I've always been on the Tesla side of the Tesla-Edison wars, and Tesla was one of my boyhood heroes.

That being said, Edison, like Bill Gates with the PC, was the genius of his age. And like Bill Gates, it was less that he was the technical genius, but the man who had the right combination of technical and business savvy to ride the wave of innovation that he was part of.

Nice guys don't always finish first. It's a sad fact of life, but a fairly constant lesson from both politics and business.

That's why I always like to remember Rilke's admonition, from his poem "The Man Watching," in bad paraphrase: "What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things."

Being number 1 is overrated. Changing the world for the better, and being forgotten in the process, is far more worthwhile.

That's also why I like to use as a business maxim "Create more value than you capture."

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