This is a story of Thomas Edison. It is a story I often refer to when teaching both new and experienced Engineers in the US and abroad. When I mention his name, What do you think of? Most people immediately think of the light bulb. The incandescent light bulb to be precise. Taken from his biography page:
Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not born into poverty in a backwater mid-western town. Actually, he was born -on Feb. 11, 1847 - to middle-class parents in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, a community that - next to Odessa, Russia - was the largest wheat shipping center in the world. In 1854, his family moved to the vibrant city of Port Huron, Michigan, which ultimately surpassed the commercial preeminence of both Milan and Odessa.
At age seven - after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of ll ages - Tom's overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child's persistent questioning and seemingly self centered behavior. Noting that Tom's forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster's brains were "addled" or scrambled.
From this come the first major point I always make. Asking questions is, in the development of technology, more important than knowing answers! In the exploration of possibilities, the imaginative mind is allowed to investigate, to probe, and to explore. This flies in conflict with the traditional Victorian schooling we are all given. In traditional schooling, we are taught right from wrong. We are taught the truths and facts and expected to recall them from choices of untruths and non-facts in tests and quizzes. Score well on these tests and you do better than others. Do the best, and accolades, money, and higher education are yours for the taking.
It turns out that Thomas was a voracious reader and digester of knowledge. He consumed books, begining with literature and then leading to the sciences. He was also a sharp observer. Noticing things around him, and forever questioning. Hi Grandfather taught him Morse Code.
At age 16, after working in a variety of telegraph offices, where he performed numerous "moonlight" experiments, he finally came up with his first authentic invention. Called an "automatic repeater," it transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing virtually anyone to easily and accurately translate code at their own speed and convenience. Curiously, he never patented the initial version of this idea.
Ah, moonlight experiments. As a holder of 5 patents myself, I cannot understate the importance of this to today’s engineers. Research and Development is not a 9 to 5 job. It never has been, ever since the days of the cave men and women. Engineers that work 9 to 5 and then stop working, stop thinking, stop questioning, stop experimenting will never produce what an engineer can who sees no such boundaries. Managers must support experimentation. Companies must support 24/7 access. Managers must also support that engineers may work 20 or 30 hours straight and will need sleep! R&D does not work on bankers hours.
Several inventions later, and several failures, I might add, Thomas did not have much money. This is yet another hidden key to success. Most really successful ideas start in a position of desperation in either time frame or money, or the best situation of all: lack of either. The age old saying “desperation is the mother of invention” rings loud and true. Without tremendous time/monetary pressure added to the cocktail of questioning, an ecosystem of creativity and invention cannot exist. Engineers who operate under a constant time and money pressure will produce best, and they know it. The ones who complain do not understand the recipe – yet. I tell engineers to always operate in a world of “zero budget”. It stresses the mind. It boils in desperation. It leads to relentless problem solving.
By the time Edison turned 30, he had earned $40,000 from his successful inventions. He decided to build the Edison Laboratories in Menlo Park – Menlo Park New Jersey. He hired assistants who he called “muckers” and they called him the “Chief Mucker”. They ended up generating over 400 patents. But what you won’t read about unless you dig, is that there were thousands of failures. In finding the perfect combination of filaments, glass, and vacuum, the Edison muckers tried hundreds and hundreds of combinations before they had success.
This point raises another of my key questions: Are you ready to fail? In fact, are you ready to fail time after time after time? Further, would you be prepared to keep trying? In our current methodology of training engineers, the focus on the schooling is success. If you pass the tests with great grades, and produce successful science experiments then you succeed. Does this breed great engineers? It is not so clear. Most can not handle failure. One of my favorite interview question of Software and Hardware engineer candidates is” Have you ever made a mistake or failed? If they answer no – I don’t want them. They don’t fit the model. If they look down at the floor and say yes, then I am interested. Here is why: you cannot invent new things without failure. It is from the failure of our answers to curious questioning, in hypothesis, and experimentation that new truths are found. Most of us remember this hypothesis and experimentation training in school, but how many of you remember the teacher praising failure? Never. Because the teachers were hardly ever inventors.
From another web site:
By creating a large laboratory and factory complex that eventually employed nearly 5,000 people, Edison could undertake more projects with greater resources than had ever been possible before. His research and development laboratories were the first of their kind anywhere and revolutionized the process of technological research. His vision led to a new era in which innovation proceeded at an unprecedented rate, bringing with it great improvements in the quality of life of every individual and many changes to society.
In 1892, the Edison General Electric Company merged with another small research and development company to form General Electric. Since then, GE has grown into a diversified technology, manufacturing and services corporation with 250 manufacturing plants in 26 different nations. GE employs 313,000 people worldwide and in 2001 had revenues in excess of 125 billion dollars.
Edison is perhaps the perfect example of my points. Since then have been many more: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and on and on. So remember to be a voracious consumer of knowledge, to experiment, to endlessly ask questions, to explore and mine information processes and procedures. Create an ecosystem of desperation – no money and no time. In whatever field you are in, this approach leads to critical thinking, to experimentation and to certain failure. Embrace failure, for it is from the failure that new knowledge is gained. Maybe, just maybe, from all of this will come inspiration and creative invention.