When we call Thomas Edison to mind, our first thought is of a brilliant inventor and innovator whose creations transformed modern life. We often think of him toiling away in a laboratory all by himself, long into the wee hours of the morning.
And yet, we rarely consider the role that collaboration played in Edison’s world-changing success. Tangled in the lore of the lone American inventor, our mind’s eye conjures up Edison’s spray of white hair and his signature bow tie, quickly ascribing his 1,093 US patents to innate genius.
Tempting as it is to sustain this image of Edison, it is inaccurate. In an age when many speak of Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs in the same breath, it’s important to refresh our understanding of the pivotal role collaboration played in Edison’s innovation prowess. He viewed collaboration as the beating heart of his laboratories, a sustaining resource that fueled the knowledge assets of his sprawling innovation empire.
Rising from humble beginnings, Edison was largely self-educated, pursuing his relentless passion for learning well into his seventies, when he taught himself botany. Deeply skilled in chemistry, telegraphy, acoustics, materials science, and electromechanics, Edison’s thirst for discovery began in his early teens and never ceased. Like a magnetic force all its own, Edison’s brainy leanings drew others to his quests, attracting bright colleagues with a huge diversity of skills.
From his earliest years renting space in workshops and ...