How Thomas Edison Described His Most Productive Days as an Inventor

Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 — October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman, who has been described as America’s greatest inventor. Edison’s signature invention is the light bulb. And his Incandescing Electric Lamp, one of Edison’s 1,093 inventions, was patented on October 30, 1883. Without a doubt, he was one of the most productive inventors in American history.

Edison’s inventions contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.

Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:

“Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.

You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours. He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.”

Edison’s description of his work habits

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” — Edison

Orison Swett Marden, an American inspirational author who wrote about achieving success in life and founded SUCCESS magazine in 1897, once set out to discover the secret to Edison’s success.

In his book, How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men and Women Told by Themselves (1901), Marden reveals Thomas Edison’s work habits, self-described by Edison himself. The book was republished by the Mises Institute in 2011.

‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’
“Fourteen of 15 hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,” I suggested.
“Well,” he replied, “for 15 years I have worked on an average of 20 hours a day.”
When he was 47 years old, he estimated his true age at 82, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.
Mr. Edison sometimes worked 60 consecutive hours upon one problem. Then, after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.
“Are your discoveries often brilliant intuitions? Do they come to you while you are lying awake nights?” I asked him.
“I never did anything worth doing by accident,” he replied, “nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident, except the phonograph. No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.
“I have always kept,” continued Mr. Edison, “strictly within the lines of commercially useful inventions. I have never had any time to put on electrical wonders, valuable only as novelties to catch the popular fancy.”
“What makes you work?” I asked with real curiosity. “What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle? You have shown that you care comparatively nothing for the money it makes you, and you have no particular enthusiasm for the attending fame. What is it? “
“I like it,” he answered, after a moment of puzzled expression. “I don’t know any other reason. Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am not easy while away from it, until it is finished; and then I hate it.”
“Hate it?” I said.
“Yes,” he affirmed, “when it is all done and is a success, I can’t bear the sight of it. I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light.”
“You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,” I ventured,” working 18 hours a day.”
“Not at all,” he said. “You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed.
“Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object — one thing to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”

Thomas Edison’s journal habits

Edison was a prolific keeper of journals for all phases of the great inventions he created in his laboratory. Through it all, notebooks were a constant presence, capturing details about his inventions and the management of his labs.

In his book, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko, Michael said:

“Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in his 3500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. Keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius.”

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” Edison once said.

Here is his famous to-do list, written in June, 1888.

In an interview with Evernote, Paul Israel, Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project located at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey said this about Thomas Edison's Papers:

What we’re doing, is going through the archive–over five million documents, which we are editing, researching, and transcribing to better understand what was going on in the areas of research and business with which Edison was involved and to make these materials more accessible to scholars and the general public.
This project has been at Rutgers for over 30 years. We thought there were about 1.5 million pages when we started working on them. The current estimate is now five million. And we have also located over 30,000 pages in other archives and private collections.

One more thing:

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