Last month it was a visit to Thomas Alva Edison’s labs and manufacturing headquarters in West Orange, New Jersey, and this month it was a 20-hour road trip to see the eclipse in rural Oregon, accompanied by a books-on-tape rendition of “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. These two things together – the visit and the road trip – brought into sharp focus the historical impact of the patent process on innovation and technology in the U.S.
Edison had only a grade-school education, yet his inventiveness and fierce sense of competition drove him to create not only world-changing technologies on his own, but to establish a revolutionary full-fledged R&D facility in West Orange [moved from its original location in Menlo Park] and the means by which ideas emanating from those labs could be commercialized and ramped to volume manufacturing. He wanted to own the entire process, from invention to final sale, and in many areas of science and engineering he did just that.
The Thomas Edison National Park is really just a series of wooden buildings where breakthroughs in the electric light bulb, and subsequent establishment of a power-distribution industry, as well as ground-breaking developments in recording sound, in particular the human voice, were pursued in lock-step with equally revolutionary developments in motion picture engineering. In fact, it was on this day in 1891 that Edison patented the Kinetograph, his term for a motion picture camera.