An Introvert as Canny Leader
Far from a lone genius, the inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera in fact ran the world’s first research laboratory. Reflections on introvert Thomas Edison.
If the myth about poet Emily Dickinson’s timid, frail temperament ought to give way, as I discussed in this month’s Introvert Book Club post, so too does the myth of Thomas Edison as a solitary inventor. We remember him for having persisted at combinations of elements for the incandescent light bulb when his first 10,000 tries didn’t work. But most people today don’t know about Edison’s introvert quirks – nor that he founded and managed the first research and development laboratory anywhere in the world.
Thomas Edison, Introvert
Born in Ohio in 1847, Edison had little formal schooling but a superb education. His mother taught him at home after a teacher described young Thomas as “addled.” Together, mother and son worked their way through works of Shakespeare, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. “My mother taught me how to read good books quickly,” he later reminisced, adding, “I didn’t read a few books, I read the library.”
From the age of 12 when he went to work as a newsboy on the railway between Detroit and Port Huron, Michigan, he leveraged his curiosity and ambition into entrepreneurial successes, such as telegraphing Civil War battle news ahead of the train, thus increasing demand tenfold for the papers he was selling. Observing a shortage of skilled telegraph operators, young Edison practiced Morse code relentlessly, until he got hired all over the Midwest, devouring textbooks on chemistry, geology, technology and history in his spare time.
Also around the age of 12, he lost much of his hearing. For an extrovert, being excluded from everyday conversation would have been a trial, but Edison regarded this supposed disability as advantageous. As a telegrapher, he heard just the signal and not the background noise that bothered other operators. His hearing loss also allowed him to focus at work and concentrate in social situations.
At business lunches, while others indulged in small talk, Edison would think through his invention challenges. “I don’t need anyone to amuse me,” he once said. “Thinking is the most pleasurable thing in the world.” Indeed, he declined to work on any invention that would alleviate deafness, and when told an operation might restore some of his hearing, he had no interest in pursuing it.
Edison as Introverted Leader
As Edison’s inventing career gathered steam, he needed more and more help to turn his copious ideas into practical items. To identify well-educated problem solvers, he made them pass a 146-question test of general knowledge – including geography and history as well as science and technology. He also invited job candidates to lunch, disqualifying those who added salt or pepper to their soup before tasting it. In the late 1870s he bought land in Menlo Park, New Jersey and built a research lab that with the hard work of hundreds of staff scientists and engineers began turning out invention after invention.
Edison spent long hours supervising dozens of research teams and filing the resulting patents, but like a typical introvert he also often retreated from the hubbub for rejuvenating sessions with his idea notebooks or for power naps. He was grouchy and driven, but he lightened up the grind for his crew with practical jokes and midnight apple-pie parties. Scholars credit him with establishing a sophisticated research-and-development organization that served as a model for Bell Labs and other corporate R&D facilities.
Some observers have misunderstood Edison’s personality by looking at the way he concocted publicity stunts, orchestrated splashy press coverage for big promises and carefully cultivated an image of himself as heroically industrious. For instance, to announce his success with incandescent lighting, he didn’t merely light up one bulb; he staged the lighting of a neighborhood in Menlo Park and made sure special trains ran to allow the public to view the spectacle.
But his flair for publicity had nothing to do with inborn exuberance or a desire to have people admire him. Rather, Edison constantly needed capital to run his invention lab, to persuade consumers to adopt his inventions and to implement projects such as installing municipal lighting in New York City. Staying in the public eye with a reputation for wizardry was a means to an end for him and thus consistent with being an introvert.