Quanta Technology Blog

Goodbye Thomas Alva

Post author: Lee Willis

We are far enough into the current century that our present technology is noticeably better than it was at its beginning. Our latest automobiles are cleaner, safer and get better fuel economy than those made in 2000. Our airplanes are faster, quieter and more efficient. At home we stream movies, videos and college courses, rather than buy CDs or tapes. The devices we use in our daily life, from refrigerators to microwave ovens, home security systems to handheld computers to factory-wide distributed CAD/CAM systems, are better, faster, and often more efficient.

This steady technological progress has affected not only our productivity, convenience and comfort, but our history books. Throughout most of the twentieth century, school books put one figure atop the list of American scientists, inventors and industrial entrepreneurs who helped build our nation and its industrial hegemony – Thomas Alva Edison. The inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph was at the pinnacle of a long list of innovators that included Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, John Eriksen, George Eastman and Alexander Graham Bell. But while our high school history books mentioned them, they put Thomas Alva front and center because, while the contributions of those others were important, every room in America had a light bulb in it, and nearly every home had a phonograph.

Beyond that, the tale of Edison’s patient, persistent and procedural research – 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration – was a lesson that teachers, administrators and parents alike thought children should learn: Keep your eyes on the goal, kids. Don’t be discouraged, but learn from your mistakes. Be patient and determined and stick with it. Edison’s story of hard work leading to success, and the consequent improvement he made in the world, was enough to make many young people go into science and engineering, including this once-young engineer.

But that will not be the case twenty years from now. Edison’s incandescent light bulb is no longer in every room and will soon be little used. Its manufacture and sales are prohibited by law. His phonograph is buried under strata of follow-on technologies that have themselves become obsolete and forgotten, including eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, CD players, and the Walkman  so far in the past, and so far removed from our daily lives as to be unrecognizable to our latest generation. My six-year old granddaughter looked at a phonograph and a vinyl record from the mid-20th century and asked, “Wouldn’t all your songs fill up your house?” Indeed they would, my dear, if you had as many as you do today.

Ironically, Edison’s most lasting contribution, the one that has made the greatest impact in the long run and will long outlast the light bulb, the phonograph, or any of his other inventions, is the very thing that has finally pushed him out of the history books. Menlo Park was the first corporate R&D center, the forerunner of Bell Labs, Xerox’s PARC, and the many dozens of big corporate development labs we have today. In the twenty-first century, technical progress is driven not by the intrepid inventor working alone in his lab, but by balanced teams of researchers selected for their specialty skills and put in harness by R&D management committees working to fulfill their companies’ business strategies. Whatever you think of that, thank Thomas Alva for it; it started with him.

Thomas Alva Edison’s light bulb and phonograph are largely gone from our daily lives, and shortly he will fade from our history books, too, relegated to being only one of a long list of innovators in the industrial age. Eventually, he may be only a footnote. Our world is definitely better for all the technology we have developed and put to work on our behest. I will miss Thomas Alva. But mostly I hope somehow our schools find a way to still convey the “ninety-nine percent perspiration and one-percent inspiration” lesson he represented so well, and continue to teach our kids that one person can make a difference by following their dream with determination and focus, seeing it through to the end.

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