November 18, 2009
Inventing the 21st Century
Just ten years into the second millennium, the U.S. finds itself in a situation complicated by a catastrophic oil spill dumping hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf, a badly wounded, if recovering, economy whose historic dominance is being ably challenged, and a growing demand for energy that must be produced without hastening the impacts of climate change. There is a growing consensus that energy innovation offers a pathway to the solutions for all of these challenges, but the White House and Congress seem flummoxed by what steps to take next. As TIME magazine's Bryan Walsh suggests in his latest cover story (subs. req'd) profiling the influence of Thomas Edison's innovative genius on the energy industry in the 20th century, it may be time to look to history for some guidance.
As Walsh explains, Edison "spent his career "inventing the century" - the 20th century." But he did not devise the inventions that gave birth to the electrical power industry (not to mention the recorded music and motion picture industries) in a vacuum. Instead, Edison's innovative potential was nurtured from a young age and as an adult, he continued to encourage his creativity by surrounding himself with others whose knowledge base could help him realize his ideas.
Was a supportive environment important to Edison? Absolutely. He was a singular figure but not a lone genius. His immense gifts were nurtured by the society in which he flourished, one that reveled in the romance of scientific discovery...
It was one of Edison's brightest ideas that when he moved seriously into his career as an inventor, in the 1870s, he created his own, smaller-scale version of an inventor community in Menlo Park, N.J. The laboratory and workshop he established there in 1876 - his "invention factory" - put him at the center of a critical mass of assistants with backgrounds in multiple areas of science, engineering and skilled labor. It was essentially America's first industrial R&D facility and the forerunner of every business-world creative cockpit, from the Ford engineering center to the Microsoft campus and Google's Googleplex. At Menlo Park, Edison once boasted, he and his team could develop "a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so." That's a rate even Steve Jobs would kill for.
In fact, Walsh continues, Edison and his contemporaries created the model and set the precedent for America's innovative excellence through the 20th century:
Inventors like Edison helped build America's unparalleled scientific and technological dominance, a dominance that, more than any other single factor, made the 20th century the American century. Of the more than 530 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry or medicine since 1901, more than 200 have been Americans... And the federal government played an important role through its own research laboratories and investments in education. Even when America's scientific preeminence was threatened by the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch in 1957, the U.S. only came back stronger. "The federal response to Sputnik was an overwhelming investment in science and engineering education," says Teryn Norris, director of Americans for Energy Leadership. "That had spillover benefits across the board."
Much of the world we live in today is a legacy of Edison and of his devotion to science and innovation. He not only invented the first commercial electric light bulb but also established the first investor owned electric utility... But more than a simple series of inventions, Edison's most lasting contribution might be in the system of industrial invention he helped pioneer. Edison's true genius lay in his ability to bring mass brainpower to the process of invention - and then to market the resulting devices with the deep pools of capital just forming in late 19th century America. The Menlo Park way, using a sizable cadre of skilled assistants with expertise in multiple fields, became the foundation for research and development as it is practiced in the U.S. and increasingly around the world. Edison taught us to invent, and for decades we were the best in the world.
And yet today, as we face an energy impasse both domestically and globally, the nation that once paved the way for our modern energy infrastructure appears woefully inept at nurturing and encouraging the creativity and ingenuity that has always kept the U.S. on the cutting edge. Energy education, particularly at the highest levels, is lagging behind rapidly developing nations like China and public investment in energy R&D represents just a tiny fraction of the sums the government allocates to health and military research.
Although Edison's life story is indeed singular, his model for research and development has national application. Happily, more and more influential minds are starting to realize the true lesson in Edison's success - innovation requires a comprehensive strategy.
Rapidly, an energy innovation consensus is taking shape. Last summer, 34 nobelists signed a letter asking President Obama for a $15 billion increase in funding for energy R&D. Shortly afterward, over 100 universities, professional associations, and student groups urged the U.S. Senate to fund the Obama administration's STEM education initiative, RE-ENERGYSE, in a letter organized by the Breakthrough Institute. Since then, Bill Gates has joined the growing chorus of think tanks and elites, calling for public investment in energy innovation in order to tackle what Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth has called the "energy quest," or the challenge of providing clean, cheap energy, not just to the developed world, but to those in the developing world that lack any access to energy at all. And overwhelmingly, these voices acknowledge that any energy legislation must build a comprehensive national strategy for energy innovation that is ultimately based on Edison's basic model.
As Bruce Richter, one of the nobelists who signed the letter to Obama last summer, explained in response to Revkin's call for 30-second pitches to Obama on how to address the energy challenge:
At the start of this discussion I said that no one knows what technology we will have 50 years from now. There is an exception to this -- we will have only what we have today if we do not spend money on R&D that can lead to advanced systems...
Our present course will likely lead to the U.S. being one of the world's biggest consumers of advanced energy systems rather than one of its major producers. Perhaps with your leadership we can get on course to be at the head of the parade.
You can view Richter's full "pitch" below:
Richter, Gates, Revkin, and many others have recognized the power of the Edison's innovation strategy to bring about the technologies that can revolutionize the way we make and use energy. It is time the White House learns from one of America's most revered inventors and fathers of U.S. technological prowess, and supports the kind of comprehensive energy innovation necessary to invent the 21st century.