Celebrating Edison and the “Intellectual Infrastructure”

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – February 12, 2014 – Comment

We can’t let February pass by without a salute to Thomas A. Edison and what is perhaps his biggest contribution to our world… the spirit of innovation as an interdependent dynamic. The Wizard of Menlo Park would have been 167 years old this February 11. American Water proudly still possesses a work order signed by Edison himself hiring the company (at the time, The West Orange Water Company) to install cast iron water pipe in his lab.

Back then, the 45¢ per foot of pipe and $20 work fee Edison paid us was a good deal! However, it is not the honor of installing pipe for a man of Edison’s greatness that we celebrate when we think of Edison. We celebrate the way in which this one project demonstrates a great intellectual infrastructure that provides stability, fuels progress and enhances our lives every day.

We’re all familiar with the physical infrastructures that define our world – the water mains, power grids, pipelines, and roadways. But have you ever stopped to think about the most powerful infrastructure of them all? The ideas, innovations and improvements that all interconnect to create the world as we know it?

Edison’s inventions drove so much. His ideas and creations are credited with establishing and/or contributing to everything from major worldwide industries such as power utilities and motion pictures, to mass communications and modern research labs. With 1,093 U.S. patents, it is with good reason we consider Edison “the great one.” Yet, one of my favorite Edison quote shows just how humble and not so ‘independent’ he really was:

I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off.

In these few words Edison establishes the critical power of this intellectual infrastructure, stating that no one working to better the world can operate in a vacuum tube (invented by John Ambrose Flemming on the basis of work done by Edison!). He teaches us that no idea is the big idea, but instead the start of something even bigger. He teaches us that ideas never die; they simply connect to each other to create a continuum of progress. And he teaches that the ability to make an impact on this fabulous network of ideas and growth is possessed by every individual.

And so, as we celebrate Thomas Edison, we hope everyone takes his lessons to heart, and we look forward to seeing what the evolution of intellectual infrastructure has in store for each of us!