Everything You Think You Know About Thomas Edison Might Be Wrong


Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison

Was anything we learned in school true? Next it will be revealed that Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite with a key attached to the string in a storm.

via Business Insider

Thomas Edison did not try 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb, nor did he labor in a dusty workshop by himself.

That’s according to David Burkus, author of “The Myths of Creativity,” who says America’s favorite innovation story may have been the result of a tremendous publicity push.

In his book, Burkus debunks the popular tale of Edison and what he calls the “lone creator myth.” His claim? That we love the story of the solo-genius, the starving artist, the one brilliant man against the world — even if it’s not always true.

In the case of Edison, Burkus argues that the famous creator didn’t invent the light bulb so much as perfect it, with the muscle of a massive publicity machine behind him. Edison’s main laboratory, built in a rural New Jersey town called Menlo Park, was famous for generating more than 400 patents in just six years. That rapid clip made it known as the “invention factory” and established the popular image of Edison tinkering late into the night.

What’s less well known, Burkus claims, is that Edison worked with a team of 14 or so engineers, machinists, and physicists — collectively known as “muckers.” The muckers resided on the upper floors of the Menlo Park warehouse while Edison split his time between inventing, dealing with clients and investors, and speaking to the press.

“The muckers at Menlo Park were such a fertile source of ideas that it seems odd that their presence is typically dropped from the story,” Burkus writes. “But this isn’t a coincidence. It was by design.”

“As their work progressed,” he continues, “the team of muckers quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name. They found that when they advertised their ideas or tried to sell themselves to potential clients, their audience seemed to like the notion that a single individual had authorship of their ideas, especially when that person was Edison.”

In short, the muckers created Edison, the archetypal inventor. They saw that Edison by himself made for a more valuable brand than their collective group, and capitalized on that by mythologizing him.

Burkus is not the first to challenge the lone creator ideology. In a July 2011 paper, “The Myth of the Sole Inventor,” Stanford Law School professor Mark A. Lemley disputed the invention stories of Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse, and Eli Whitney.

Edison, Lemley writes, “did not ‘invent’ the light bulb in any meaningful sense.” Electric lighting was long in the works when Edison came on the scene, and his work attracted several patent infringement lawsuits from his contemporaries. “What Edison really did well,” Lemley argues, “was commercialize the invention.”


  • Chaos_Dynamics

    Edison’s ghost is alive and well in Jeffery Immelt and his multitude of minions.

    Does GE have a competitive component relating to the Tesla Model S?

    Are elephants being electrocuted anywhere?

    Inquiring infinite minds want to know…

    • InfvoCuernos

      Edison’s elephant electrocution stands out as one of the all time biggest Dick moves in American History-and that’s saying a lot.

    • alizardx

      When on the wrong side of AC v DC power distribution, Edison tried to make “Westinghousing” a popular synonym for electrocution. AC is easier and cheaper to distribute until one gets into extremely high power levels unknown in the early 1900s… but DC is what Edison was investing in. George Westinghouse was pushing AC,

  • alizardx

    Ironically, Edison’s greatest invention was buried by “the muckers” – his workshop and his R&D team of muckers was the prototype of the modern industrial research laboratory from which most inventions we know come from.

    Though “the lone inventor” isn’t a myth, either, ask any patent attorney in independent practice. Or me (two patents applied for).

    • Dingbert

      Recommended: “The Idea Factory” by Jon Gertner. It’s about Bell Labs, the other place in NJ that invented just about every electronics-related thing you can think of. How they did R&D there was awesome–even the buildings were designed to foster innovation. But stuff like that is only possible if you’re a government-sanctioned monopoly. Otherwise, you get what we’ve got for the past 25 years: rehashed and rebranded crap that aren’t “inventions” at all.

  • Simon Valentine

    “You don’t say?”
    “No, I’m not a lone creator.”
    *together laughing*

    less is more
    a song’s score
    the american dream
    of how to fuck people over less
    and use entertainment to wipe off the excess

  • John

    for such an oppression resistant forum this site sure does oppress peoples thoughts and comments a lot.