Thomas Edison’s Lifelong Struggle With Focus

Thomas Edison supposedly proposed to his second wife in Morse code. He learned it as a telegram boy. He would study it for 18 hours a day until he had mastered it. Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park provides an insight into Edison’s learning style and intensity. Edison had a prolific productivity throughout his life: he had more than a 1000 patents in his name when he died. He became an inventor when he was 22 years old without coming from a family of money. He started by being a telegram operator and took jobs where he could tinker in his spare time. Edison soon sought investors that would provide funds for his creations: an improved telegraph transmission, a stock price printer, a fire alarm, an electric vote recorder for congress. He soon started filing patents.

Behind his prolific output was a love of novelty and a lifelong struggle with focus. His first major invention was the phonograph which recorded sound on tinfoil cylinders. It was the birth of audio recording. After demonstrating his prototype to the press and recording “Mary had a Little Lamb,” Edison had a line of financial backers willing to fund him to commercialize the prototype.

As Stross writes: “The Phonograph gave Edison an opportunity in 1878 that would never appear in his 84 year long life. With no other invention did he have as open a field without competition; he was perfectly positioned to move forward. He had become renowned. Financial backers were standing at the ready, impatiently waiting for the machine to be “perfected” and made ready for sale, and were willing to accept a small, toylike placeholder in the meantime. He had at his disposal his own development lab and complete machine shop, with a staff that took orders from no one but himself. He had all the materials that he might concievably need at his finger tips. But just then, when the whole world seemed to be focused on him and his mechanical marvel, Edison simply could not muster the focus to complete its development. The moment passed before he realized it, and it would be ten years before he would return to work on what he called affectionately his “baby”.

Instead Edison took a break and travels West to California. When he comes back to New Jersey, records show a dated page in his laboratory notebook containing three sketches. They were labelled “Electric Light.” Edison then builds the invention that the American public knows him best for. While the electric bulb did not have any technical similarities the phonograph, Edison had gotten experience demoing a product and getting attention in the press. He used these soft skills to publicize the invention of the Electric bulb. The fame generated by this allowed allowed him to draw financiers and benefactors to fund his other projects.

Edison does spend time figuring out how to commercialize the electric bulb. And he is motivated by competition. Many inventors in the US and Europe work to create an electric bulb and deploy it. Soon he started another venture for train based telegraphy. And then he poured $180K of his savings into building a new lab. During this time the market showed interest in using the phonographs for recording music. However Edison failed to see the potential. Instead he started on working on a talking doll. In his lab he employed hundreds of girls for recording nursery rhymes for each doll. While all the dolls were tested in the lab, before being shipped, almost all of them were internally damaged on the way to the store. Of the first 200 dolls sold, 188 were returned. Edison distances himself from the company that had his name to license the toys.

He then subsequently hopped into a new field and bets almost everything he owns in a quest to make a name for himself — in mining. He spends five years trying to figure out a better way to mine iron ore. He bough the Odgen iron mine in rural new Jersey and began to design a method to process ore. However he did not succeed in this enterprise. In the meantime his phonographs kept getting copied in the market and versions began to appear by competitors that resembled jukeboxes. Edison ignored this development. After finishing his mining adventure, he starts working on a kinetecope moving view — a precursor to motion pictures and movies. Before commercializing it he then starts work on an electric car. And then later with some funds from Henry Ford he starts work on an electric battery. However after getting the financing for it he choses to finally shift his attention to the phonograph. While he fixes bugs in the existing model, he refuses to pivot to the music business. Finally towards the end of his life he starts a new career in industrial botany with an attempt to manufacture rubber.

It is no surprise that during his lifetime he was given the title the world’s greatest investor, and the world’s worst businessman.

Is there a relationship between invention and distraction?

Invention seems to be a mix of experience and being receptive to new insights. In Edison’s case his curiosity and search for novelty led him to the light bulb. However it also kept him from commercializing it because he went on to launch another venture.

You can only pivot if you are not hyperfocused on one objective

One of Edison’s biggest misses was not seeing the potential for recorded music through the phonograph. This stemmed from his distaste of popular culture. His lack of curiosity in this case led him to be blindsided.

Are there rules for when to focus and when not to focus?

Are there systems that can you create to focus and to be distracted?

What happens if you change the end goal?

It seems like Edison viewed filing a patent as a marker of success. What if instead he had viewed positive net profit per unit as a goal for his inventions?

A competitive environment sharpens focus

The instances in Edison’s career when he was able to focus were when he was driven by competition. Most other times he kept himself isolated in his lab, with little contact with peers in his industry.