A Brand, Not Just a Genius

We like to think of the inspired inventor working alone in his lab – or, nowadays, his garage – but David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity has pointed out that “Edison worked with a team of 14 or so engineers, machinists, and physicists—collectively known as ‘muckers.’ The muckers resided on the upper floors of the Menlo Park warehouse while Edison split his time between inventing, dealing with clients and investors, and speaking to the press.”

But the most fascinating part of the story is that “the team of muckers . . . found that when they advertised their ideas or tried to sell themselves to potential clients, their audience seemed to like the notion that a single individual had authorship of their ideas, especially when that person was Edison.”

“In short, the muckers created Edison, the archetypal inventor. They saw that Edison by himself made for a more valuable brand than their collective group, and capitalized on that by mythologizing him.” (To be sure, by calling them ‘muckers’ Edison could not have helped them acquire much self-confidence.)

A few years earlier, Stanford Law School professor Mark A. Lemley had commented that Edison “did not ‘invent’ the light bulb in any meaningful sense.” Electric lighting was long in the works when Edison came on the scene, and his work attracted several patent infringement lawsuits from his contemporaries. “What Edison really did well,” Lemley argues, “was commercialize the invention.”

Lemley noted that this is part of a larger pattern among inventors. Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse, and Eli Whitney, besides Edison, assembled teams to solve technological problems – and got the credit for their inventions. (See, Business Insider, Thomas Edison and the Myth of the Lone Inventor.)

We like to think we are a nation of individualists, and so we recall and celebrate our unique inventors. And, to be sure, many introverts do need to isolate themselves from the crowd to think clearly and follow their own inspiration, a point that was beautifully made by Susan Cain in her new book Quiet. (You can check out her Ted Talk on “The Power of Introversion.”) Competition can get in the way, as can the pressure to conform. A group of people can generate a lot of noise.

But the fact is that most of us are usually much smarter and more creative when we work together. If there is a clear common goal and reasonable incentives, we can also build on each other’s ideas, spur each other on, and push past the limitations of our individual thoughts. We can brainstorm our way into a better future.
Sir Isaac Newtown is reported to have said that he was able to see further than others because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. He wasn’t the first to make that point.

But you don’t need to be a giant to give someone else a boost, and you don’t need to see something clearly at first to pursue a valuable insight.
Getting to new ideas can be a messy process, and we won’t often know how we got there or, even, when we arrived. So it might not be a good idea to isolate ourselves.