Edison’s lesson: how to create utility [Article]

May 31, 2017 Ellen Kirkness

In 1879, inventor Thomas A. Edison was looking to make a better light bulb. Not the first bulb, but a better one.

Already, Frederick de Moleyns, Joseph Swan, J. W. Starr and Alessandro Volta had reached relative stardom with their versions of generated incandescent lighting. It was Edison, however, who gave the effort some legs, believing, as he said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

That was a tough lesson for Swan, who came close to creating the first incandescent light bulb that could be deemed a commercial success. His deficiency, however, was that he used a large carbon rod as part of his design while Edison was using a much smaller carbon filament. Because size matters to the consumer, Edison ultimately won the inventors’ race.

More important, in addition to creating the first practical, long-burning bulb, he created a power-distribution company to feed his invention. The Manhattan-based Edison Electric Illuminating Company was a huge industry disruptor that sent manufacturers of gas as a source of lighting into a tailspin.

The lesson Edison taught industrialists is that it’s the utility of each new technology – the practical application provided by quality components, product longevity and viability of design – that really counts.

Edison did not invent the first incandescent light bulb, but he was the incredible visionary whose incessant focus on utility made his product accessible and affordable. That focus fueled his unparalleled success and allowed Edison to set the precedent for a model industrialist.

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