Thomas Edison vs. Structured Innovation 

 September 16, 2014

By  Howard Cooper

Who was the best inventor, Edison or Tesla?  I recently read two excellent books on innovation:  Edison on Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation.  Now I am seeing my previous post, Doing More with Less, from a new viewpoint and with increased clarity.  I would like to show how doing more with less and turning it to increased profits, has a great deal to do with the power and completeness of the innovation methodology you use to get there.  Having read these two books, I am more convinced than ever that the i3DAY Innovation methodology will take you most quickly to the solutions and innovative new products or services you need to propel your business into the future of national and global competition and enjoy improved profits.  What did I learn from Edison on Innovation?  (In a future post I will review the best concepts from Ten Faces of Innovation.)

Thomas A. Edison, what a guy! Reading Edison on Innovation was next best to reading an autobiography by Edison himself!  I prefer autobiographies over biographies because when a person tells his own story, they include the real secrets to their success—those memorable and soul changing experiences during their life that fixed their resolve to live and act by certain specific principles or truths.  We can read  how acting on these principle, across a lifetime, generated the successes of their life. The Author, Alan Axelrod, found some of these character-forming experiences and principles in Edison on Innovation.  He also tells, in an interesting way, the chronology of Edison’s life and inventions, so the reader can see what principles for innovation Edison learned and then applied over and over to generate over a hundred patents across his working life.  It seems he understood 10-12 of the 40 principles for solving “system constraints” or conflicts between system parameters.  He also understood the concept of using “time” (one of six areas of local resources) to solve the “physical contradiction” of needing to send multiple telegraph messages at the same time, but only having one telegraph line between cities on which to send messages (an economical and ergonomic restriction or “contradiction”).  Edison solved this problem by using the local resource of time to invent the first relay  multiplexing circuits. The result; four telegraph messages could be keyed in on the telegraph at the same time, in his New York office and immediately in Boston on the other end of a single line, four separate telegraph message receivers and recorders would come to life and simultaneously print out their separate messages.

Of course Edison, Tesla, Marconi and that great generation of pioneer inventors (1845 – 1895) who started the Industrial Revolution, were 50 – 100 years before Albert Einstein and Genrich Altshuller.  It was on this hundred years of innovation and technical patents that Altshuller was able to extract the “40 Principles of Innovation” and observe the “Patterns of Evolution” of any “system”.  In 2010 I recognized the power of this collection of the principles and patterns of innovation.  I also recognized the need for tools to make the right principle immediately available once a problem is defined.  I began creating PC tools to instantly access the right principle to solve your problems without having to look them up in a book.  In 2014 I launched i3DAYinnovation.com.  I have also captured the needed processes, from Ed DeBono, Clayton Christensen and others to help any team to not only identify the problem and the solution, but also to implement the solution back into the real world.  i3DAY is the acronym describing that combination of i3 (tools):  DeBono (processes), Altshuller (principles) and You—applying these ‘lessons learned’ to create a better future.

i3 – Innovation; 1.Tools, 2. Principles and 3. Processes, from
D – DeBono processes
A – Altshuller principles and pattern, and
Y – You able to instantly access the best principles and process to solve your immediate problem

i3DAY consulting also utilizes whatever else we can to help clients succeed, i.e., Clayton Christensen’s models for managing disruptive innovation, our Design for Six  Sigma Black Belt certification, methods and experience, my years of experience in Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA), etc. But, the i3DAY acronym sticks, as the power base that will help you solve your problems and beat the competition to patent and bring to market your future success.

You can wait decades for an epiphany, or you can step from principle, to epiphany, to solution concepts in less than an hour, using these tools and i3DAY methodology.

This tangent into i3DAY supports my next observation:  Edison apparently did not understand the nine-step “Patterns of Evolution” for projecting or forecasting next-phase innovations, or next generation products.  Evidence:  During his experiments with his new vacuum light bulb, he did observe and record that by introducing a second element or conductor into the vacuum, he could then cause (and measure) an electrical current across the vacuum, from the heated light element to the cold element or wire.

Innovation step: move from electrical to wireless energy flow
Edison observed electron flow across the vacuum void within his new light bulb

Today we recognize that as the first vacuum tube, but Edison saw no practical use of the effect and made no further effort to pursue the principle. He didn’t realize this was the next step in the “Patterns of Evolution”.

Some 50 years later in 1904, British engineer John Ambrose Fleming patented the first thermionic valve—the first vacuum tube.  With this advance the age of modern wireless electronics —and radio—was born.

Edison also observed in experiments that when current ran through his telegraph wires there was a measurable and observable wireless interaction with unconnected lines running parallel to the active telegraph wires.  He never furthered experimentation or invention with this phenomenon.  Had he understood that stepping from electrical to electromechanical transference of energy and function was one of the nine steps in the “Patterns of Evolution”, he might well have been the inventor of AC transformers or the inventor of the AC motor, rather than Nichola Tesla.  Ten years younger than Edison, Tesla built the first AC Induction Motor in 1887.

One more interesting note on Thomas Edison:  He is still today much more of a household name than Nichola Tesla (inventor of AC Power Generation, Distribution and the AC Motor, the Tesla Coil and the Navy Torpedo). Why?  Before reading this book, I thought the reason Edison was more recognized and had more inventions was that he was much more a business man than an inventor.  Edison had many other engineers working for him.  But, after reading Edison on Innovation it became very clear that Edison was more successful than Tesla because Edison understood at least one of the eight processes needed to define a problem and bring the solution all the way to market.  A hundred years later Ed DeBono identified all eight processes and how to know when each is needed.  Tesla was truly a great inventor, but like most inventors, his ideas usually never made it all the way to market.  How often does an inventor’s invention actually make it all the way to the market place?  And if they make it, how often does it still have the inventor’s name attached or associated with the profits?  Not often.  There are specific processes for success here, but Tesla did not know them.  It was, therefore,  easy for Westinghouse, who financed Tesla, and later the bank, to leave Tesla sitting with his good idea, but with no ongoing profits from its commercialization.  This is why we describe i3DAY innovation methodology as a combination of the principles, tools and processes for rapid, effective innovation.

In my next post I will round out the concept of doing more with less.  I’ll also give some useful observations on the book Ten Faces of Innovation.

About the author

Howard C. Cooper is a Design for Six Sigma Black Belt, Systems Engineer and founder of i3DAY Innovation. Over the past decade he coached 26 different product development teams at General Dynamics through solving their most critical challenges; design constraints, safety, reliability, etc. All 26 design and development projects were accepted in critical design peer reviews. All 26 were adopted by the U.S. Army, currently saving $233 million per year, over the legacy systems they had been using.

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