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By Edward Tenner – Thomas Edison might be the last great self-taught inventor who also brought technological research and design into the 20th century. By building a staff of researchers, some trained in the emerging US academic science programs, Edison’s laboratory served as a model for the 20th century’s great industrial laboratories, including General Electric, Bell Labs and the chemical and pharmaceutical giants. Edison’s role in power generation, musical recording, motion pictures and other technology remained an inspiration for decades.
Yet some influential economists insist that the age of rapid development of transformative inventions, pioneered by Edison, has reached an end.
There is no proof, but it’s worth considering whether the skyrocketing market capitalization of Silicon Valley’s so-called ‘unicorns’ – corporations that are worth a billion dollars or more but have not yet gone public – are growing at the expense of undercapitalized market-creating innovations.
The stark fact of technological transformation from the late-18th century to the late-20th is that there was scant low-hanging fruit. Innovation, much less transformation, was arduous and slow.
Begin with Edison himself. His real genius was not so much the first commercially practical lightbulb filament but an entire system for the generation, transmission and sale of electrical power.
Ultimately, the alternating-current technology developed by George Westinghouse proved more profitable and easier to expand than the direct current that Edison insisted was safer, and Edison’s financial backers merged his company into its rival. Mass electrification needed other inventors as well. more>