Thomas Edison was a great inventor but a poor innovator.
It’s a distinction with a difference. Inventors are builders. Innovators are remodelers. The dissimilarity has significant implications for innovation. It’s the reason why Edison the inventor saw innovation as socially horrifying.
Thomas Edison is one of America’s great inventors. Invention, by definition, is the sum of ideas plus items. Edison held patents for 1,093 inventions, including the stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, recorded music, and the electric lamp. These inventions then became conventions when wedded to institutions. In the case of the electric lamp, Edison patented a system for electrical distribution based on direct current (DC) and founded the Edison Illuminating Company.
Direct current however had a problem. The power plants could only deliver electricity to customers within about one and a half miles of the generating station. DC would have required tens of thousands of power plants and heavy transmission lines. So Edison hired Nikola Tesla to innovate, to improve the system, promising him 50,000 dollars. Tesla did improve the dynamos but Edison never paid him. He told Tesla he was joking, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.”1
Edison however understood Tesla’s innovation, called alternating current (AC), was easier to transmit, to convert to different voltages, and more economical than DC. He was horrified to later learn that railway air brake inventor George Westinghouse had bought Tesla’s technologies. Edison the inventor became Edison the obstructionist. He launched a smear campaign against alternating current, hiring a film crew to make movies of animals being electrocuted with high voltage AC, including Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant. Acting on Edison’s directives, the crew was to demonstrate to the press that AC was more dangerous than Edison’s system of DC. Edison lost the battle, but his behavior raises a question: why was he horrified by Tesla’s innovation?
The answer has to do with how innovation works. Invention is intermittent. Innovation, on the other hand, is incessant, destroying an existing institution while “incessantly creating a new one,” wrote economist Joseph Schumpeter.2 Tesla’s innovation stirred what Schumpeter called the “gales of creative destruction.” The howling winds horrified Edison because Westinghouse’s new institution was toppling his old institution.
That’s the nature of renewal, which comes from the Latin innovatus, or “innovation.” The European Reform movement recognized renewal is always ongoing. The motto was: semper reformanda or always reforming. The Bible says renewal requires disruption (a seed must die in order to bear fruit). Always renewing requires always disrupting. In the Bible, prophets played the disruptive part. They were safeguards against those resisting renewal and similar to what Ernest Hemingway said made for a first-rate writer: “a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”3 Prophets are crap detectors, keeping people from becoming “excessively righteous” and ruining themselves by resisting innovation (Eccl. 7:16). Without prophets, innovation becomes socially horrifying—a reality Vivek Ranadivé discovered when he tried to be innovative on the basketball court.
Ranadivé is from Mumbai and grew up playing cricket and soccer where the teams play the entire field. When Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he couldn’t understand why American teams score and then immediately retreat to their own end of the court. Malcolm Gladwell writes that Ranadivé decided to innovate. He used a full-court press every minute of every game.4 This proved successful as his team upset more highly ranked opponents, all within the rules. Other teams had a more conventional take on the game—it is not supposed to be pressed full-court full-time. Gladwell says the other teams viewed Ranadivé’s innovation as “socially horrifying.”
This might explain why LeBron bungled his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. Buzz Bissinger is a friend of LeBron who co-wrote James’ autobiography, Shooting Stars. Before James became a “brand,” he had a crap detector named Maverick Carter. Bissinger said Maverick Carter is long gone. Success stigmatizes naysayers. In an interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, Bissinger said, “You need the one s___ detector guy. You need older, wiser men who have the guts, to say, ‘You made a bad decision.’”
Viewing innovation as socially horrifying might also explain why the Western church seems to be a “not-for-prophet” institution. Take churches rooted in the Reform movement. We admire their theology and ecclesiology but their take on human nature is drawn chiefly from the Enlightenment. One example is Hegelian Idealism, the assumption that ideas have legs in and of themselves. This runs contra to scripture (and Edison’s life). Ideas only have legs when wedded to items and made operational in institutions, such as ESPN. It’s hard to see how worldview and apologetics training make a difference in ESPN. Or take churches rooted in the “two-chapter” gospel. We laud their zeal and desire to fulfill the Great Commission but we don’t see any meaningful connection to the Cultural Mandate. Culture is simply something they do to have a “platform” for sharing the gospel. This runs contra to the scriptures, where making culture is the human job description, essential to loving our neighbors.
It’s hard to hear any contrarian calls of prophets in either faith tradition. It’s more the case that upending Enlightenment assumptions or a “two-chapter” gospel is seen as socially horrifying. Reality however has a way of catching up to institutions that resist innovation. Edison eventually conceded he was wrong. But it took over 60 years to replace his institution. Parts of Boston along Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue still used Edison’s DC as late as the 1960s. There were cases of Boston University students repeatedly burning out their small appliances (typically hair dryers and phonographs) after ignoring warnings about Edison’s DC electricity supply.
Innovators recognize that all innovation requires some destruction. We see it today as Tesla is returning to the headlines. The Tesla electric car is part of the green movement, which is likely to destroy some of the gasoline-powered auto industry. The jury is out as to what will become of Tesla, but the point is, it’s easy to invent things and create institutions. It is much more difficult to disrupt and innovate existing institutions. That’s why Edison was a great inventor but Nikola Tesla was the real innovator.
1 Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001), pp. 56-57.
2 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, NY: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942], pp. 82-85.
3 As cited in Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York:, NY Delacorte, 1969), p.3.
4 Malcolm Gladwell, “How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules,” The New Yorker, May 11, 2009, pp. 40-59.