Taking Note: Lessons in Collaboration & Creativity from 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.

He is actually one of the least well known of all famous people, and much of what everybody thinks they know about him is no more reliable than a fairy tale. — Keith Nier, Thomas Edison historian

People love building up stories about famous people to legendary status. That’s why we all think that the coldest winter Mark Twain spent was a summer in San Francisco. In reality, studies of his writing indicate that Twain never said it.

On a similar note, it’s difficult to question the epic work ethic of prodigious inventor Thomas Edison. His work has been responsible for thousands of patents and his inventions have had ramifications on how we live and work to this day.

Yet, there is this image of Edison that has long propagated to mythical status around his work. We imagine that he was struck with surges of inspiration and that swell of near-constant ideas was directly correlated to his success as an inventor.

And it turns out that isn’t quite true.

We know because he articulated and captured so many ideas and thoughts into over 3,500 notebooks. A team of researchers at Rutgers has scoured through his notes and discovered very little evidence that proves the electrical confluence of ideas fell from the sky like apples striking Newton’s head, alas, that’s another myth.

After all, Edison did (and, this is true) utter this most famous phrase:

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”

Edison Notebook with Lightbulb

Courtesy of the Edison Papers, Rutgers University

Last week, we chatted with Paul Israel about the work his team at Rutgers has accomplished studying thousands of notebooks Edison accumulated. Today, we dive into some of his notes to explore ways he stayed productive. The themes evident in his notes are relatable and transferable into much of the work we do today, including:

  • Thinking about the future to imagine how problems can be solved.
  • Observing the world around you.
  • Embracing collaboration with fellow colleagues and researchers.
  • Fostering and embracing creativity.
  • Drawing inspiration from sketching.
  • Managing the details of life through lists.

Always Discover

Edison’s penchant for peering into the future was nothing short of remarkable.

Decades before the Wright Brothers completed their first successful flight from Kitty Hawk, Edison was tapping his imagination to map and tinker with ideas about flight in his notepad:

a Paines engine can be so constructed of steel & with hollow magnets . . . and combined with suitable air propelling apparatus wings . . . as to produce a flying machine of extreme lightness and tremendous power.

While he definitely nailed some of his seemingly otherworldly predictions, like the future of flight, he missed a few others. Edison envisioned a world where our books would be plated and printed in copper, mostly because it was more economical.

Regardless, Edison championed thinking about the future and because he took mental risks, he has become a pivotal symbol to innovation — always thinking about how to improve processes or create things that made an impact.

Make Observations

Observation is essential to understanding and creativity. Leonardo da Vinci’s observation of birds in flight inspired drawings for futuristic flying machines. Albert Einstein tried to make sense of theories that were validated by science long after his death.

Edison’s free-flowing imagination was also helped by rigorous observation. He used observational insight to help influence his current projects while balancing other ideas that could potentially be something bigger. On one notebook page he was penciling out diagrams for magnets and printing telegraphy, and a few pages later he was jotting down prognostications on the future of flight.

While working on the phonograph, Edison was shown images from renowned photographer, Eadweard Muybridge. The photos illustrated animals in motion and instantly inspired Edison to think about how those images could be conveyed to people.

Suddenly, the work he was doing with the phonograph created a connection to another project, leading eventually to the kinetoscope and motion picture cameras. In drafts for patents he says, “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.”

Without Edison’s notebook discoveries by the team at Rutgers, we may never have realized that his observations from a photograph served as the impetus for his work with motion pictures. According to Rutgers professor Reese Jenkins, “If we hadn’t looked at his notebooks and draft caveats,” Jenkins points out, “we’d never know what the original impetus for the idea was.”

Constant Collaboration

If you imagine Edison to be the single most important individual behind his inventions, you’d be mistaken. He was never about individual efforts. Everything about his work was directly connected to other contributors. His success was dependent on their success in the lab.

Long before Steve Jobs had Jonathan Ive, Edison had the vision to pull in the people who could help take ideas to fruition.

He also was known for the ‘midnight lunch’ — an endearing term coined by colleagues who would work on projects late into the night. According to author Sarah Miller Caldicott, Edison would leave the lab around 5 p.m. to have dinner with his family, but would return later to check in on the progress his colleagues. It was then, surrounded by a close-knit group of trusted colleagues and the convivial atmosphere, that collaboration took its most pure and meaningful form in the Edison lab.

At about 9 p.m., Edison would order in food for everyone from a local tavern. For an hour or so, the assembled crew would relax, tell stories, sing songs, and even play music together, before heading back to work until the wee hours of the morning. They connected socially, and created a deeper understanding of each other as people and not just workers. This process of midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues. It served as the foundation for collaboration in all of Edison’s labs. Through midnight lunch, we see the importance of activities that encourage employees to come together in ways that link work with their social lives. For Edison, midnight lunch was crucially important… creating an environment in which collaboration could thrive. It became a powerful link to Edison’s use of small teams as a driver of innovation success.

Today, the equivalent may be a team putting out an order for late-night pizza while they are working hard on pushing out a release update or finalizing a new product feature.

Edison was always keeping his eyes and ears open, watching what others were doing. When he learned that the competition — in one case, Alexander Graham Bell — was nearing completion of a phonograph, Edison called a confab and his closest colleagues and contributors came to a three-day session to help solve the challenge.

The lessons that Edison can teach us about collaboration are vital and very applicable in today’s work world. Many of the following points were integral to Edison keeping forward momentum on his projects:

  • Tapping the knowledge of colleagues working in small teams.
  • Expecting everyone to have equal weight in the lab and share in all active discussions.
  • Emphasizing the process of discovery and learning over simply producing.
  • Edison understood that collaboration influences knowledge, which in turn creates tangible assets that can be configured and reconfigured for future projects and inventions.

Ideas & Creativity

Embracing his team’s creativity was a huge asset for Edison. In fact, he encouraged them to contribute ideas, jot down ideas, and sketch out diagrams. The best ideas from his experimenters were identified and developed — keeping creation at a group level rather than favoring individuals.

According to historian Greg Fields, Edison’s keen insight into the creative process was what set his work apart from the rest.

“One of Edison’s greatest overlooked talents was his ability to assemble teams and set up an organizational structure that fostered many people’s creativity,” Fields says.

Draw Your Ideas

Many of Edison’s inventions involved a complex menagerie of parts, machinery, and electrical wizardry. Edison relied heavily on drawings and sketches to help map things out and manage complex concepts in his inventions. They also helped out when it came time to filing for patents.

Edison Fuel Cell Drawing

Courtesy of the Edison Papers, Rutgers University

As Edison pursued the advancement of electricity, his notes and drawings for work on the electric light grew so big they required their own notebook.

Today, there are many scientific links to the power of doodling out ideas by drawing, again showing how well Edison presaged modern productivity methods.

Manage the Things to be Done

And then, of course, there’s one of the world’s most famous to-do lists.

Edison isn’t quite considered the father of the to-do list. But, his lists — especially the four-page ‘things doing and to be done” he created in 1888, established an important system of managing and tracking all the projects he had going on during the opening of his West Orange laboratory and the projects he planned to start.

In the span of a few notebook pages Edison penciled in work he wanted to manage for the cotton picker, the electric piano, ink for the blind, the phonograph, and a chalk battery. While he certainly didn’t complete everything on this massive list, it represented the opportunity to get ideas at many different stages committed to paper.

Edison Notebooks

Courtesy of the Edison Papers, Rutgers University

“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 was managing costs, figuring out where things might start to get too expensive,” said Paul Israel.

Edison Notebook with Numbers

Courtesy of the Edison Papers, Rutgers University

As we go about our busy days, trying to manage a barrage of media inputs, organize our thoughts, and create our own legacies, the methods of Thomas Edison can serve as a template. They are also a powerful reminder of the power of systematic thinking, teamwork, and, above all, note-taking.

Are you using any of these in your note-taking? If so, Edison would surely be proud. Share your tips and advice for the Evernote community in the comments or on Twitter with #takenote.

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