When we talk about disruptive innovation, we can easily agree that going from the days of dim candle light and sooty oil lamps to electric light was one of these breakthrough innovations, right? Its icon, the lightbulb serves as our symbol for a great idea today.
Who invented the lightbulb?
When you ask around “who invented the lightbulb?” the answer “Thomas Edison” first comes to mind – and the answer is wrong! Truth is that we can give credit closer to 20(!) inventors of the lightbulb! – How so?
Thomas Edison patented the first practical and commercially viable incandescent lightbulb in 1878 and a revised design in 1879. In addition, he offered the first efficient electricity supply system for households and businesses, which laid the foundation and cleared the path for mass-producing light bulbs in 1880. His design was an evolution from previous, inferior designs and enabled by improved technology.
Sitting in the dark without Edison?
No worries, we would not stay sitting in the dark. It appears safe to say that even if Thomas Edison was never born, the practical incandescent lightbulb would have been developed around the same time – by someone else.
Looking back in history, Humphrey Davy invented electric light in 1802; more than 75 years before Edison. His “arc light” was unsuitable for mainstream application though it found specialty uses even today. Many more designs for incandescent light and lightbulbs were developed by several inventors, but neither were they practical nor suitable beyond demonstration stage. Prominently, Joseph W. Swan built a working prototype of a “light bulb” in 1850 – well before Edison.
Edison had access to improved technology such as a better vacuum pump for his breakthrough design. This technology was not available to previous inventors. Edison also developed an efficient and economical way to distribute electricity when earlier designs drained batteries quickly. (A nice example, by the way, on how a product can go a long way when bundled with a complementing service.)
On the flip-side, Edison knew of his limitation too. He made carbonized Japanese bamboo glow as filament between two electrodes knowing that carbonized Tungsten was the superior material. However, the technology was not available at the time to produce a thin Tungsten thread. We had to wait for William D. Coolidge to produce the Tungsten filament for General Electric in 1910, which is still the preferred material to illuminate our modern incandescent lightbulbs today.
This situation is typical and comparable to many big ideas that entrepreneurs work on today. There is much competition among entrepreneurs, so every good idea usually has a handful of teams working on it independently and head-to-head at the same time. Thus, it is highly likely that, if not Edison, another inventor would have come up with the lightbulb design we are so familiar with today.
R&D as a Legacy
Perhaps, the even more impactful and lasting heritage of Thomas Edison are not his inventions, useful as they are. His products such as the lightbulb, phonograph, quadruplex telegraph, mimeograph, etc., have been replaced over time by more advanced technology.
Nonetheless, Edison has changed the way we discover concertedly today. Until his time, inventors matched the stereotypical image of a lonely genius experimenting and inventing in their lair burning the midnight oil over some ambitious idea. Edison established the first research and development (R&D) organization in his famous Menlo Park lab, where a large number of researchers worked together in an orchestrated way to find solutions to specific problems coordinated strategically and systematically concerted. Edison has industrialized research!
Until today every research-driven company or organization worldwide follows in Edison’s footsteps! What an impressive legacy!
Disruptive innovations tend to have their origin in incremental steps and competition among inventors. First working individually and now increasingly in teams or even distributed R&D organizations across country borders.
A key success factor here is building trust and incentives within the team in order for all individual contributors to share information and findings freely.
The broader, cross-functional approach to research helps to identify ideas and technologies from other disciplines that can serve as stepping stones. Edison used a better vacuum pump, which made his design possible. Later, the capability to manufacture a thin Tungsten wire allowed General Electric to take the lightbulb the next level.
As the saying goes, “innovation happens at the intersections of disciplines.” The development of the lightbulb serves as a nice example proving it to hold true once again. Thus, innovation benefits by drawing from advances in other disciplines.
So, is disruptive innovation a myth?
Back to our original question, the story of the lightbulb is a great example for a breakthrough innovation with vast ramifications that disrupted and shaped the we live and work around the globe.
It can, however, not be seen as just one big and isolated scientific step but rather a series of many little steps in combination insights from other disciplines including manufacturing, economics and marketing leading to broad adoption that changed the world.
Only when it all comes together you have a disruptive innovation like Edison’s famous design. And it was still not the end. The journey continued to evolve with a Tungsten wire and later fluorescence, halogen and LED lights.
In this light, every disruption seems as yet another incremental step, doesn’t it?