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How Edison’s Invention Factory Pioneered Team Collaboration

Michelle Stone

It’s not too hard to guess that a prolific inventor like Thomas Edison couldn’t have worked alone. Instead, he developed the idea of an invention factory–a team of collaborators working together in something like an early R&D lab. This way of working was relatively new at the time, and it sought to change the world with collaborative problem-solving. It ended up transforming the way business is done (even to this day).

Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents that covered truly historic inventions like the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb, but one of his most significant contributions may well have been his invention factory. When Edison died in 1931, nearly every major corporation was using this model, which continues to this day.

A State-of-the-Art, Collaborative Environment

Edison’s lab in Menlo Park cost the equivalent of $50,000 and was two stories high, with a machine shop on the first floor and a scientific and chemical laboratory on the second. The lab had the best equipment available at the time, and Edison always worked to have a steady flow of cash that would keep the lab operating at the forefront of innovation. While he initially led his staff very closely, the lab eventually grew so large that Edison transitioned to something more like a mentor — he provided initial guidance and suggestions to teams who would then independently work their way to a solution, relying on each other to propel the process. 

R&D labs create new jobs, innovative products, and even entirely new industries, thanks to a collaborative work model that recognizes the unique brilliance in each person (and the awesome potential of playing to one another’s strengths in a group setting). In his West Orange lab, Edison employed young men fresh out of colleges and technical schools, whom he referred to as “muckers.” He worked hard, and he expected the same of his employees, often asking them to test their ideas late into the night.

High Expectations and Outstanding Results

though idea innovation

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Edison ran a tight, demanding ship, but it paid off for his employees. Many commented that, despite the long hours and sometimes harsh criticism, they benefited from being in proximity to the great inventor and their brilliant coworkers. And, really, that’s the beauty of collaboration: it allows innovators the opportunity to surround themselves with driven, talented people and come up with something truly special.

Today, R&D labs have many different looks, and they may even include remote workers. Edison’s basic idea, however, is still fundamentally used today — gather smart, motivated people together in the same space (either physical or digital) and work through problems together to produce a product that is ultimately more than the sum of its parts. 

Collaboration requires careful coordination and the ability to track multiple versions of ideas, templates, prototypes, and models. By using tools like EAGLE, today’s innovators can effectively collaborate on projects of any scale, keeping a record of a variety of iterations. While Edison’s methods were less technical, today’s engineers and makers can connect schematic diagrams, work with component placement, route PCBs, and access a comprehensive library, all of which allows for more advanced development and a quicker time to market. EAGLE also offers a comprehensive online support community–think of us as a digital version of the workspace Edison created all those years ago. Try it for free today!

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