Saturday, March 3, 2012

Edison in Winter

A few weeks ago I found myself in Fort Myers, Florida, where I literally stumbled upon the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, 20 acres of botanical gardens, homes and laboratories established in 1885 by Thomas Edison.

Fort Myers may be a happening place today, but in 1885 it was little more than 40 homes connected to civilization by a cattle trail.  In fact, until the early 1900s, Edison was forced to ship everything he and his family required, including the timbers from which they constructed their home, by water.  Edison’s wife, Mina, must have been an incredibly good sport to tolerate long months of banishment from the relatively civilized surroundings of New Jersey while her husband grew and harvested every plant known to man in an attempt to efficiently manufacture natural rubber.

I did not take notes, but our guides were excellent, a photo exhibition of Edison’s life and times from the Smithsonian superb, and I’ve catalogued below just a few of the things that resonated with me about Edison and his work.  (Apparently I have more of a fascination with Edison than I knew: Here is a post about his recording company and very earlyconsumer marketing, another about his role as one of the only authentic heroes of the Gilded Age, and one where he reminds us that even the greatest among us can usually only be rich or king, not both.  Here’s the one where I explain how I accidentally erased this original post.)

HERO WORSHIP.  Thomas Edison was about 5’10” tall.  His statue on the grounds of the Estates must be seven or eight feet tall, maybe more.  Photographed next to him, we all shrink in comparison.  That’s the point, I suppose, but why must we do that with all of our heroes?

 And, while Thomas might have been pleased by the added height and heft, it’s hard to believe Mina would have appreciated being supersized.

MENTORING.  Edison came to Fort Myers for the warmth, adventure and quiet—and for the bamboo, which grew abundantly on his property and happened to be one of the best natural materials for light-bulb filament.  Henry Ford, who purchased and very occasionally occupied the home next to Edison for about five years, came to Fort Myers for Edison.  The great inventor had encouraged the struggling automobile entrepreneur, becoming his lifelong friend and mentor.

Edison came for the weather, the peace and quiet—and the bamboo. 
Ford came for Edison.
SOME THINGS SHOULDN’T CHANGE.  Edison worked for about five years as a telegrapher, in the process becoming a master of his craft and building a portfolio of some 100 patents in that single field.  It was only then that he hung out his shingle as an inventor and tried to change the world.   Working in a company environment, learning a job skill, understanding what needed to be fixed before marketing a solution: If the greatest inventor in American history could keep the horse before the cart, perhaps it’s a lesson from which our newly-minted entrepreneurial app-writers could profit. 

SOME THINGS DON’T CHANGE.  On the other hand, when Edison invented the phonograph he really had no idea how to market or make money from it.  The first go-to-market plan involved wheeling models around to county fairs and charging folks a penny or two to see it work—all of which called for, as we now say in technology start-ups, a reset.

Things didn’t always sell as hoped.  Or maybe, as George Foreman later proved, the sandwich grill was simply an idea ahead of its time.
 But the lightbulb worked out ok.
BEATING PLAN.  Edison’s goal was to invent something minor every month and something major twice a year.  It was an aggressive plan that he vastly exceeded.

Edison even had his own brand of cement, experimenting with precast structures.  Here, his pool is spring-fed at a nice, comfortable 80F or so, all constructed from his own model and material.
GETTING AWAY.   Edison, Ford, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs, joined later by others, escaped into the wilderness on regular camping trips.  It was a way to think, talk shop, and re-energize apart from the daily grind.  Known as the Vagabonds, their outings became famous. . .

COMING BACK.  . . .so much so that they began inviting the press to follow them.  Instead of camping, they began shipping their dining room furniture and turning their wilderness encampments into photo ops.  They even invited the President to join them.  The Vagabonds weren’t the first, and they certainly weren’t the last to get waylaid by America’s cult of celebrity.

I’m pretty sure Edison would have been on Twitter.

A 1921 edition of the Vagabonds.  Edison is front and center.  Ford is on the left, apparently shaving with a straight-edge but no mirror: the true sign of an entrepreneur.
THE BACK 40.  It’s generally acknowledged that Edison’s second forty years did not measure up professionally to the first 40, despite his best efforts.  Some of it was a change in personal priorities, as he spent more time with his family and had many more obligations related to his celebrity status.  Some of it, however, was that the world he helped invent—thousands of smart people undertaking applied research--simply overtook him.

Edison’s botanical lab.
If Edison’s lab workers got tired of grinding up plants, there was always the view. 

Edison grew the second largest banyan tree in the world, bested only by a single cousin in India.  In the end, however, Edison discovered that the most efficient producer of latex for natural rubber was. . .the goldenrod.  It’s a reminder never to judge a breakthrough by its stamen.
MISSING THE NEXT THING.  With friends like Ford and Firestone, and America having been at the mercy of foreign nations for its rubber during WWI, it’s no wonder Edison spent the last ten years of his life working to improve the production of natural rubber.  By the time of his death, however, petroleum-based rubber was the future.  Microsoft missed “the search thing.”  Google missed “the friend thing.”  Edison missed “the petroleum thing.”  Obviously, it happens to the best.

Edison’s home
Ford’s home.  Not everything is original, but the building and grounds are immaculate.  It’s all worth an afternoon.