When we think of the now dying incandescent light bulb, we think of Thomas Alva Edison and his 10,000 prototypes. It’s a story that has grown in the century plus since it happened, and would fit in perfectly with the cult of personality that today’s tech pioneers enjoy. But is it a complete story? Let’s go a few years back. Somewhere before the work in the Menlo Park laboratory and see what it took to get to prototypes number 1.
In 1850, Edward Shepard invented an electrical incandescent arc lamp using a charcoal filament.
In 1854, Henricg Globel invented the first true light bulb, using a carbonized bamboo filament placed inside a glass bulb.
In 1875, Herman Sprengel invented the mercury vacuum pump making it possible to develop a practical electric light bulb. Also in 1875, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans patented a light bulb.
In 1878, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was the first person to invent a practical and longer-lasting electric light bulb using a carbon fiber filament derived from cotton that could burn for over 13 hours.
We don’t really get to Edison until 1879. That’s when began to evolve his designs based on the 1875 patent he purchased from Woodward and Evans. This is the year he invents a carbon filament that could burn for 40 hours in an oxygen-less bulb. The next year, 1880, he would improve his light bulb until it could last for over 1200 hours using a bamboo-derived filament.
While Edison’s success was derived from his ability to learn from his failures, he also gets a break from building upon the successes of others who made the breakthroughs he needed first.
And then there are the 10,000 failures themselves. Without them, Edison would not have been able to leave the world with quotes like, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Or, “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” And of course,” I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” These quotes are made possible by the notion that Edison toiled long and hard until he found the right material, design, and shape to make the bulb a success.
But what if he didn’t toil so hard. What if he was on to something in prototype one that would have allowed him to offer prototype 10,001 somewhere around 2001? Or even 101? Or what if the number didn’t matter because somebody like Nikola Tesla could have succeeded before Edison? The quotes could not exist without the eventual success of the light bulb, but could they have existed with much earlier success?
James Dyson built 5127 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner over a span of about 14 years, going deeply into debt in the process.
Blendtec has been selling professional and home blenders since 1975, but didn’t gain prominence until founder Tom Dickson began the “Will It Blend” segments on YouTube in 2006. Dyson and Dickson are successful businessmen seen as pioneers in their oddly similar product lines, but a good part of that success comes from having a great story to tell.
One more quote from Edison: “Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” This is a quote that I have recently taken to heart. I’ve developed some idea to the point where the do indeed look impossible, and I have been discouraged. I am about to change that.
We will talk again about my success. We will have to see how soon, but I’ve got ways to go before I reach prototype 10,001.