According to Harry T. Roman, author of the e-book series Thomas Edison: Man of the Millennium, the great inventor was both influenced and invigorated by his relationships with others. In Volume 2 of the series, Roman postulates that not only Edison’s fellow inventors and technicians in the lab, but also, his mother and second wife were fundamental to his creative growth and business success.
The second volume in this series is aptly titled “Lifetime Partnerships.” In it, Roman describes how Nancy Elliot Edison, a trained teacher, literally rescued her son. She began homeschooling him after a teacher told her the boy was “addled” and incapable of learning. Besides instilling discipline in him, she also encouraged young Thomas to read. He soon became an avid reader of everything – from the classics to history, science and poetry – and this became a lifelong passion.
“Edison’s love of reading and learning,” writes Roman, “would be crucial to his success in later years.”
In addition, the author believes that what he calls the “cozy boys’ club at the lab” was greatly responsible for fueling the great inventor’s creative genius. Roman describes, at length, the male camaraderie in Edison’s workshop. Late and overnight sessions with his staff included sharing pranks, knee-slapping stories and midnight meals – in which Edison heartily participated. At the same time, the men’s comradeship also fostered teamwork; together, they were creating exciting, new inventions.
“Viscerally, Edison grasped the importance of creativity, the need to nurture it, and most important, step back from it when necessary,” he writes. “R&D executives may not approve of such behavior in the labs as high-priced scientists and engineers engage in what might appear to be sophomoric tomfoolery.” But Roman, who spent 36 years in research and development at PSE&G, adds that “research project managers everywhere would give their right arms to be able to instill in their staffs what Edison did in his!”
In a chapter titled “The R&D Legacy,” the author pays tribute to what he calls Edison’s greatest invention – the modern day R&D laboratory. “Edison took invention from a freelance art form and he transformed it into a scientific and commercially based enterprise,” he states. “He boldly talked about his R&D lab as an ‘invention facility,’ envisioning a society where inventions rapidly follow on the heels of other inventions, and technical people who must continually learn and be ready to meet the challenge.”
He points out that Edison formed the first R&D lab in Menlo Park in 1876, followed by the Edison lab in West Orange in 1887. Other major United States companies followed suit; General Electric opened its R&D facility in 1885, followed in 1891 by both Merck and Johnson & Johnson.
Roman notes that R&D is synonymous with growth and corporate wealth. Although formalized invention began in 1792 when the writers of the United States Constitution created a patent office, it took until 1935 – 143 years later – for the two-millionth patent to be issued. He firmly believes that Thomas Edison’s ideas about team-based problem-solving and team-based inventions have significantly pushed the rate of innovation. To highlight this point, Roman states that 75% of the total eight million patents have been issued since 1935.
The author devotes a chapter to Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller Edison. Next to the inventor’s mother, who rescued him from futile mid-19th century educational norms, Roman praises Mina Edison for being an effective business partner as well as a loving wife. Unlike Edison’s first wife, Mary, who had died, Mina was educated, socially confident and had many interests of her own. Over the years, she ensured that her husband had the privacy he needed to keep working, tended to his social calendar and oversaw the visits of United States presidents, kings and other important guests to their estate. She also was the de facto public relations department of Edison R&D.
“Thomas and Mina’s marriage was a loving partnership, even if he was often away from home for days at a time,” writes Roman.
A fan of Thomas Edison for most of his life, Harry Roman was a child when he was first inspired by the inventor. Since retiring from PSE&G in 2006, the IEEE Senior Member has spent much of his time working at the Thomas Edson National Historic Park in West Orange and with the Edison Innovation Foundation. This has enabled him to gain access to original Edison writing, artifacts and lab notebooks.
Roman holds 12 United States patents and has published more than 550 scientific papers, articles, monographs and books. His many honors and recognitions from IEEE and other organizations for his contributions to technology education include the 2015 Region 1 Excellence in Teaching Award. Besides teaching, he has published more than 70 resource books, science kits and other educational products.
Along with Volume 1, Volume 2 of Thomas Edison: Man of the Millennium is available from the IEEE-USA shop for $2.99 for members and $4.99 for non-members. Volume 3, “Observations,” will be published soon.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.