Taking Note: Exploring the Notebooks of Thomas Edison

This post is part of our ongoing series, “Taking Note,” outlining the storied history and styles of note-taking. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll explore how the practice of taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.

When tackling the subject of note-taking and the course of its history, there may be no figure more prominent or influential than Thomas Edison.

Without a doubt, he was the most productive inventor in American history. In his lifetime, Edison was responsible for 1,093 patents and inventions that continue to impact us to this very moment, including the electric generator, electric pen (which gave birth to the mimeograph and the electric tattooing needle), fuel cell, storage battery, and telephone transmitter.

Through it all, notebooks were a constant presence, capturing details about his inventions and the management of his labs.

Edison was also one of the most prolific note-takers we’ve ever seen, amassing more than five million pages of notes  — much of the material created for Edison and his companies and encompassing business, correspondence, and legal records as well as memos and notebook entries that documented in detail, his illustrious career and intricately outlined every aspect of his work from financial ledgers to patent legislation.

There may be nobody more qualified to talk about the legacy of Edison than the team who has spent the past three decades poring through his notebooks.

We spoke with Paul Israel, Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project located at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  

Tell me about the work you are doing at the Edison Papers?

We have an agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) which manages  the archives located at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Rutgers University is where the Edison Papers Project is based. 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.  We have been adding three large collections of  family papers and letters to our online digital image edition. There is quite a bit of information out there. We are the premiere source. We go back and look at the original notes and documents and work with folks to make sure we are providing accurate information.

Here at the university, there are five full-time editors going through the papers to make them available and use them to better understand innovation and the history of technology and business. .

What have you learned about Edison’s productivity from going through his documents?

The reason that we are dealing with a massive archive of about five million pages is that Edison had several laboratories and many different business enterprises. Much of the documentation from the last two decades of Edison’s life is that his business enterprises were combined into a single corporation in 1911, which produced a larger bureaucracy. You had a lot of new paperwork being generated to manage this large organization.

What we’ve been doing with the large archive since the 1980s is putting the most important documents on microfilm and later we began scanning this and putting it online. So far we have finished the nineteenth-century materials from the archives and over the next ten years, we will add the significant materials from the twentieth-century. In addition, we have been  scanning  thousands of documents we have obtained from other repositories and private collections and are close to completing this part of the project.

In the book edition of select transcribed and annotated documents our focus has been on the nineteenth-century when Edison was at his peak as an inventor.  He continues to be productive and important as an inventor and innovator in the early twentieth-century but as he gets older, his significance shifts to his role as a cultural icon.

Do you see our note-taking today as a legacy of the ways Edison took notes?

I think there are some that do, but probably not directly. You do see certainly some people who understand the connection of what they do and Edison. The processes they use every day.

I think one of the key things for Edison, whenever he was working on a new project, is economics, which  was always central to the way he thought about development of technology. He thought in terms of the marketplace and in terms of user costs, manufacturing costs, and ease of manufacturing. That economic factor was always a crucial part of the technical work that was going on. Successful companies pay attention to these things.

For Edison, and this is the crucial part, the initial inventive stage was the beginning, not the end of the process. For prototyping and scaling-up, once the technology came into the marketplace, there was ongoing R&D to continue to improve the problem and to make it better, to operate better, to make it easier to use, and to reduce costs. This was part of the ongoing innovation stages after commercial introduction. It began with conceptual, inventive work in the shop and laboratory, but that was just  the beginning of the process for Edison.

Has there been another inventor who has grasped productivity so successfully as Edison?

I don’t think anybody has been so broadly successful as Edison. He had a number of major innovations and it’s hard to see anybody who matches that record. During the period he was inventing, he had advantages over so many competitors at that time. Since Edison’s heyday, it is much harder for any one individual, even for a company, to continue to have that sort of ongoing innovation where they are continually providing new leadership for new industries. I think to some extent, Steve Jobs was pretty successful at doing that in certain areas: personal computers and the shift to the iPod and iPhone, and then the iPad. He was somebody who had a lot of impact in terms of changing the market that was out there.

What kind of organizer was he?

Here’s how Edison organized the recordkeeping in the lab. What he understood, early on, is that for patent purposes, he needed to keep a complete record of work that went on. He developed a sort of standard-size notebook, 6 x 9 and 285 pages or so.

Initially, the laboratory tended to just have the books available on the work benches. You could pick up whatever book was close by, and write in it. For us, when we’re doing research in the papers, there are sometimes three to four books from the same experiment recorded. What we found are books where it’s unclear why this was done — to organize the information, not so much for Edison, but for patents defending work, there are also some books that attempt to index key work that went on. They took what was already in notebooks and tried to index it. Later on, when GE and Westinghouse became the two dominant electrical firms in the 1890s, they reached license agreements and teamed up to defeat the little guys trying to compete. They set up the patent board of control and relied on the Edison notebooks. We have, in these books, little slips put in clearly to index the books.

Keeping track of material was a problem. That was the reason that Edison had one of his office staff keep a daily journal of work that was going on at the laboratory during 1880 when they were doing the development work on the electrical system that was subdivided among teams of researchers. This journal also contained references to different books and the pages where things were being recorded. Later on, Edison tended to have his researchers keep their own notebooks. It was a better way to keep track of things going on.

Edison also tended to keep little pocket notebooks, especially later in his career. He could keep track for his own purposes what was going on in the lab and during his workday, what was going on in both business and lab environments. He was constantly keeping a record.

Did Edison implement a system of searching through his notebooks?

That was clearly a problem — how this information was retrieved. We sometimes find these books where there’s an attempt that was made to go back, retrospectively to look for specific material. Usually in patent battles, getting access to what was in notebooks was important. I think, Edison tried to tend personally, day- to-day to the work and physically visited with and explored what was going on in the laboratory, so he could easily keep on track of work.

Did Edison become the father of the to-do list?

We have no idea. I do know that he did have this tendency. When he begins his first major laboratory in Newark, he and his assistants had a to-do list. When he opened up the lab in West Orange he did the same thing. I don’t know that Edison is the father. But, we occasionally find these lists of things to be done.

There is this famous list:

Edison Notebook To Do

It’s the first page of what is actually a four-page list, essentially a way for Eidson to keep track of all the projects he had going on when he opened his West Orange lab and some of the projects he was planning on starting up.

He did keep a very careful record of the experimental work. At West Orange every project was assigned a number. At all of his laboratories you can find account records and experimental records. He did a lot of record-keeping. He was managing costs, figuring out where things might start to get too expensive.

How did he utilize productivity to power his innovation?

One of the things that made Eidson so successful was that he could bring multiple people to work on the project. This enabled him to be multi-faceted, working on different elements simultaneously. It allowed him to go so much further than all his competitors in electric lighting. He was saying the light was important, but we need to think about the whole system.

I think one of the things Edison understood about note-taking is that it was crucial to his way of working. As he is working on a project, it’s not just the successes that are important to record. Just as important, is why things are working or not working properly. And also to see how one can, by thinking about the entire process, systematize the thing you are working on, think of ways to improve what it is you are working on to learn from the things that don’t work. Part of that comes from the process of just writing it down and getting it through your head through note-taking. From there, you gain a new understanding of that process.

How do you personally use Evernote?

I am one of the people that if i don’t write a note to myself about doing something, it’s not going to happen. Or happen later. I just keep track of things that I need to do. One of the things that I do, when I am browsing, I clip stuff. You can bookmark, but after awhile, ‘where the hell is that bookmark.’ it’s not the website, it’s the particular thing you are reading that you want to retrieve. I keep notes about stuff that I want to refer to later on.

Not just my notes that I take when writing, but I can take notes on other things that I am reading to explore more for my own purposes for later projects, or for personal needs.

How would Edison think about note-taking today, given our changes in technology and access to mobile devices?

If I had to guess how Edison might think about note taking today, I would think that part of it is how people interact. Older people like physical writing, young people like iPads. I think if he were trying to be cutting-edge, he would use a tablet or iPad. There would be some sort of cross-platform system, like Evernote, where it would be easy to both take notes and be able to tag material in ways to make it retrievable. I think he would love that tool to take the kind of scattered notes he had and bring that stuff together.

I am sure he would love something like Evernote. No matter where you inputted, you could access it anywhere, readily. In fact, we found the period when working on electric lighting system, is where the books begin to scatter.

In our own research, one of the things that is an advantage to us, is this stuff is now digital so we can now look at multiple notebooks side-by-side on the screen.

What has been Edison’s legacy on Silicon Valley?

I think that fundamentally Edison’s legacy is that he is the guy that figured out how to transform invention into R&D and make it into a successful innovation. Not just what happened in the lab and in the shop, but how to get something into the market. I think a lot of what goes on today is very reminiscent of things Edison was doing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century.

Next week, we’ll explore some of the pages of Edison’s notebooks to examine how he constructed an organized system to track his inventions, manage his innovations, and run his labs. His organizational skills can easily be replicated within Evernote, and we’ll show you how.


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