Don’t Fail Like Edison Did

Tales of successful innovation are told – as good stories ought to be – in linear fashion, with the focus on a single triumphant hero. For example: Edison realized the potential for creating light with electricity, tested a wide variety of light-bulb filaments, and finally came up with one that worked well.

The implication is that innovation proceeds in a neat, orderly progression, from our hero recognizing the need, to testing solutions, and finally, rolling out the best one and smiling all the way to the bank.

Not so fast! The reality of innovation is very different from the historical depiction of it. Innovation is messy and wasteful, and it rarely moves in a straight line from problem to solution. The history of the light-bulb illustrates the gap between how we like to recall innovation, and how it really happens.

While Edison and his lab played an important role by contributing a design that made it into commercial use for a time, the fact is that Edison did not invent either the modern incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. Edison’s light bulb design, a thin piece of carbon in a vacuum, is not in use today. Our bulbs are either based on the tungsten filament patented by Willis R. Whitney in 1903, or the mercury vapor light patented by Peter Cooper Hewitt in 1901. Edison is not the father of modern light-bulbs, he is more like a first cousin twice removed.

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About the Author

Alex Hiam ( is the author of more than 20 popular books on business, including Business Innovation For Dummies, Marketing For Dummies, and Marketing Kit for Dummies. A lecturer at the business school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he has consulted with many Fortune 500 firms and large U.S. government agencies.

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