Edison’s 2,998 Mistakes

Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times of London, is the author of the just-published "They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Two Centuries of Innovator" (Little, Brown).

The striking thing about the innovators who succeeded in making our modern world is how often they failed. Turn on a light, take a photograph, watch television, search the Web, jet across the Pacific, talk on a cellphone. The innovators who left us such legacies had to find the way to Eldorado through a maze of wrong turns.

We have just celebrated the 125th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s success in heating a spiral of carbonized cotton thread to incandescence for 14 hours in his lab in New Jersey. He did that on Oct. 22, 1879, and followed up a month later by keeping a filament of common cardboard alight in a vacuum for 45 hours. Three years later he went on to light up half a square mile of downtown Manhattan, though only one of the six dynamos in his design of his central power station worked when he pulled the switch on Sept. 4, 1882.

“Many of life’s failures,” the supreme innovator said, “are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Before that magical moment in October 1879, Edison had worked out no fewer than 3,000 theories about electric light, each of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true -- but in only two cases did his experiments work.


No one likes failure, but the smart innovators learn from it. Mark Gumz, the head of Olympus America, attributes some of the company’s successes in diagnostic technology to understanding failure and acting on the knowledge. His mantra: “You only fail when you quit.”

Over two centuries, the most common quality of the innovators has been persistence, which is another way of saying they had the emotional resilience of character to cope. Walt Disney was so broke after a succession of financial flops that he was stranded shoeless in his office because he could not afford the $1.50 to reclaim his shoes at the repair shop. Henry Ford failed with one company and was forced out of another before he got on the road to the Model T.

Folklore, unfortunately, has a way of telescoping the process of trial and error so that only the peaks are mapped, not the valleys. The Wright brothers are customarily presented as if Orville’s 12-second powered hop at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, was the climactic end of their ordeals. It took five more years, working in obscurity in a cow pasture, before they were ready to demonstrate sustained, controlled flight. The Wrights were originals who learned from their mistakes, but many innovators are distinguished by how much they studied the failures of others. First is not always the best.

Robert Fulton was not the first to operate a steamboat service. John Fitch operated one on the Delaware River a decade earlier, but Fulton learned from Fitch’s error in steaming on a river where stagecoaches could compete on good roads. Charles Goodyear learned from the failures of Nathaniel Hayward in his attempts to vulcanize rubber with heat and sulfur -- though it took a lifetime in and out of debtors’ prisons for Goodyear to make the formula work.

More innovations come from borrowing and combining than simple invention alone. Indeed, the imaginative association of ideas previously considered separately is a hallmark of innovation: It’s OK to take the idea of digital photography and marry it with a cellphone.

Failure is harder to bear in today’s open and accelerated world. Hardly any innovation works the first time, and an impatient society and the media howl for instant gratification, a feature aggravated by Wall Street’s fetish with quarterly earnings. The most satisfying outcome is when the innovator surfs to the shore on a wave of derision: Ted Turner with CNN, Jeff Bezos with, Al Neuharth with USA Today. When music and movie maestro David Geffen had a very rough patch, a critic jabbed that the only difference between Geffen Records and the Titanic was that on the Titanic the band was better. Actually, it wasn’t. After four years of losses, Geffen had so many hits he could afford an ocean liner all to himself.


Those who are afraid to fail will never hit the highest notes.