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Teamwork, Edison Style PUBLIC ACCESS

The World’s Most Prolific Inventor Knew Better than to Work Alone

[+] Author Notes

Sarah Miller Caldicott a great grand-niece of Thomas Edison, heads her own consulting firm, The Power Patterns of Innovation, in which she translates Edison’s innovation methods for use today.

Mechanical Engineering 137(02), 46-49 (Feb 01, 2015) (4 pages) Paper No: ME-15-FEB-3; doi: 10.1115/1.2015-Feb-3

This article discusses Thomas Edison’s concept of teamwork and collaborations. Edison fundamentally viewed collaboration as a connecting force, a transformational force that facilitated and made possible the development of new knowledge. Edison’s innovations were generated through focused approaches to teamwork and collaboration. He viewed collaboration as the beating heart of his laboratories, a sustaining resource that fueled the knowledge assets of his innovation. Edison designed a process of collaboration that was used across his entire enterprise of more than 200 companies worldwide. Because Edison believed that individuals are vital to collaborative success, he placed emphasis on the contributions of each team member as a critical component of the team’s joint efforts. Because he believed that a diverse group of individuals offered the best chance for collaborative success, Edison consistently created teams that had members from several disciplines. The famous group that drove the breakthrough thinking behind the incandescent electric light consisted of a glassblower, a machinist, a chemist, a mathematician, an instrument maker, and a textile worker, along with Edison himself.

IN 1882, When Thomas Edison Was Constructing The World’s First Power Station at Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, he positioned small teams around the entire city.

The “Muckers”

Some of Edison’s team, nicknamed Muckers, were photographed in West Orange in 1902. The boss expected them to collaborate in small teams, but also to work independently.

Some were working on site to manage the construction process, while others were in the field laying insulated wire, or trouble-shooting system bugs in the small laboratory Edison rented on the top floor of Bergmann and Co. just blocks away from Pearl Street. Still others labored at the Edison Machine Works in yet another part of Manhattan, where they designed the dynamos that would power the station itself.

A man who preferred streamlined structures more than unnecessarily convoluted ones, Edison relished the rapid exchange and high impact that communication within a small team afforded. He found small teams ideal for making decisions rapidly and nurturing collegiality.

Many people don’t realize that Edison’s innovations were generated through focused approaches to teamwork and collaboration. He viewed collaboration as the beating heart of his laboratories, a sustaining resource that fueled the knowledge assets of his innovation.

Although created in a different era, the underlying mechanisms of Edison’s collaboration process are highly applicable to today’s businesses.

Edison designed a process of collaboration that was used across his entire enterprise of more than 200 companies worldwide. Because Edison believed that individuals are vital to collaborative success, he placed emphasis on the contributions of each team member as a critical component of the team’s joint efforts.

Thomas Edison

Grahic Jump LocationThomas Edison

When assembling his teams, Edison focused less on a person’s résumé and more on the innate, untapped knowledge and creative potential the individual possessed.

Because he believed that a diverse group of individuals offered the best chance for collaborative success, Edison consistently created teams that had members from several disciplines. The famous group that drove the breakthrough thinking behind the incandescent electric light consisted of a glassblower, a machinist, a chemist, a mathematician, an instrument maker, and a textile worker, along with Edison himself.

Additionally, Edison favored small teams rather than large ones. Most of his collaborations involved just two to eight people.

To help foster the social connections among his employees, Edison used what today we would call employee rituals. The most notable of these was the midnight lunch.

workers gave to gatherings Edison sponsored for employees who were staying after hours to complete their experiments. Never shy about rolling up his sleeves and laboring with his workers, Edison created a collegial connection with team members during these gatherings, bonding them in a way few other processes could.

At a midnight lunch, Edison encouraged people from different project teams to share their experiments, trade notebooks, and engage in spirited dialogue.

Edison believed in using a combination of individual learning and hands-on activities to work on potential solutions. In Edison’s breakthrough invention of motion pictures, he worked with a photographer in his employ, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, to construct a prototype movie studio near the front gate of the West Orange laboratory.

Known as the Black Maria, the studio was built on a swivel base, so that it could rotate to follow the sun. This was essential to providing light during filming sessions.

The design of the Black Maria and its proximity to the lab enabled Edison and his teams to go to the studio, physically test equipment, alter their hypotheses, and refine their questions about capturing motion on film.

Edison stressed collaboration, which is different from teamwork. An important difference that characterizes collaboration is that someone works as part of a group and also on one’s own.

Edison viewed collaboration as a learning continuum, not a stop-and-start process. Solo work was important to him because it signaled the individual was mentally preparing for the work that would be done jointly, and thereby improving the total output of the team.

Midnight Lunch

Bonding at gatherings after hours, team members were encouraged to share ideas on their projects.

At The “Movies”

William Dickson, who worked with Edison on moving pictures, appeared in a brief film. The Black Maria, the tar-paper studio that could track the sun, rotated on a track.

One way Edison urged his employees to prepare for their collaborations was to read texts from the libraries at Menlo Park and West Orange. The West Orange facility housed over 10,000 volumes covering mathematics, physics, chemistry, acoustical science, the classics, science fiction, and scientific journals. Edison often asked employees what they had read, and queried them on their thoughts on a given subject.

Following individual preparation, the collaborative team would come together to discuss insights into the problem at hand.

across a team. He thus asked each member to have a point of view on a subject, but address that point of view from the perspective of neutrality–holding open the possibility that the thinking was in some way skewed or biased.

For example, in devising the first working incandescent electric light, Edison built upon data from experiments that had been conducted over the prior 40 years. But he realized the hypotheses of earlier researchers had focused on the length of time a substance would burn rather than how the substance burned.

This shift in perspective enabled Edison’s teams to ask questions about the evenness of burning, rather than merely the amount of time a substance would burn.

Edison hit upon the need for the radiating surface to be small–not large, as prior scientists had hypothesized. A small radiating surface of a resistive filament powered by a current offered the crucial combination that had eluded others, yielding the first practical working electric light.

If Edison’s team members had not expanded the context of their thinking to include the nature of burning rather than merely the length of time a substance could burn, they would likely have missed the breakthrough solution that the filament represented.

Light at the End

The incandescent lamp came about only after the development team began to look at problems from new angles–considering how evenly, for instance, rather than how long a material burned.

To improve collaboration, Edison laid the groundwork for team members not only to draw inspiration from the collective endeavors of the group, but also to find inspiration within themselves.

that allows the team to keep functioning even if there are disruptions to its momentum. Even in Edison’s time difficulties like budget cuts, a slower than expected pace of results, or the loss of a team member were part of doing business.

Edison’s groundbreaking work on the storage battery, for example, required five years of intensive effort and more than 10,000 experiments.

Edison took a major financial hit in the 1890s during his decade-long pursuit of an iron ore mining and ore grinding technology that never panned out. In hopes of winning back his reputation as a ground-breaking innovator, he set about creating a portable battery that did not use lead and involved no liquid chemicals.

The result was the world’s first alkaline storage battery. It could easily be picked up by hand and used in motor cars (which were themselves quite revolutionary) as well as trucks. But the process of designing and testing the battery nearly broke the spirit of his workforce.

Edison recognized coherence as a force that united his teams in a common purpose, driving each member forward with resolve and persistence.

Team members came to realize that they could fuel their efforts with inspiration from Edison when he was present, but they also had to sustain creative momentum when Edison was absent. To create new points of inspiration beyond himself, Edison often placed promising employees in leadership positions, intentionally stretching their abilities by giving them assignments that lay beyond anything they had previously endeavored. In this way, he created catalysts within the organization that evangelized and propelled innovation in positive ways.

For example, Charles Batchelor-Edison’s right hand man at the Menlo Park lab and later West Orange-began working with Edison as an assistant experimenter and a prototyper. But over time, Batchelor rose to become someone who could envision new concepts with great clarity, and he could motivate others to consistently push the boundaries of their thinking.

Edison assigned Batchelor to head the installation of the first electrical power station in Europe-in Paris-where he managed all the logistics for the design of the station such as the contracting of suppliers. This was a completely new form of work that took Batchelor beyond the familiar confines of the lab. Ultimately, Batchelor’s success enabled Edison to propel his electrical power innovations to new markets, and Batchelor served as a crucial agent in this effort. By laying out big challenges for individuals, Edison pushed team members beyond their comfort zone. This forced them to develop new abilities and bring discovery learning into their daily efforts.

Storing Energy

The advent of automobiles in the late 1890s spurred Edison to develop a storage battery to power them. Weight issues with lead acid batteries led to experiments with alkaline electrolytes, but after 10 years developing a commercially viable iron-nickel battery, the internal combustion engine had become dominant in the automobile industry.

Grahic Jump LocationStoring EnergyThe advent of automobiles in the late 1890s spurred Edison to develop a storage battery to power them. Weight issues with lead acid batteries led to experiments with alkaline electrolytes, but after 10 years developing a commercially viable iron-nickel battery, the internal combustion engine had become dominant in the automobile industry.

Edison recognized that complexity was a factor ever-present in the collaborations of his employees and in his broader business operations. Just as Edison favored smaller teams as a starting point for his collaborations, he valued fewer steps and rules that could hinder rapid development of a solution. He put a premium on processes that encouraged streamlining, transparency, and simplicity.

learning and project timetables in an environment where designing new, disruptive technologies was the norm. Edison made efforts to stay in contact with outside firms that were innovative in their dealings with markets and products.

Edison’s relationship with Ansonia Brass & Copper-a major metals supplier-aided in the speed and scale of Edison’s complex work. As Edison and his teams experimented with copper wire as a primary conduit for his new power station on Pearl Street, they realized that their results varied even when the experimental conditions were identical.

Frustrated that his teams could not consistently verify and reproduce their results, Edison hypothesized that the source of the variation might be the copper wire itself. He proceeded to slice various sections of copper wire used in these experiments, and noted black specks in several samples-signaling imperfections and impurities in the wire.

Edison brought the wire to Ansonia Brass & Copper, and asked the company to address the problem. Ansonia worked for weeks with Edison’s teams in a collaborative fashion before it arrived at a solution.

Edison also emphasized the importance of keeping records of project activity. Teams would need to look back at the successes and failures of their current projects, and they could benefit by studying projects that had gone on years before. Today, we would describe this as creating “collective intelligence.”

Today, it’s possible to use notebooks, videos, sound recordings, prototypes, stories, and other media to capture the heart and soul of a project. Collective intelligence remains one of the most powerful outputs a collaboration can yield.

Edison fundamentally viewed collaboration as a connecting force, a transformational force that facilitated and made possible the development of new knowledge. Without a deep and broad network, Edison could not have rapidly tackled the complex challenges he faced.

Copyright © 2015 by ASME
Topics: Teams , Collaboration
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