Edison, the light bulb and disruptive technologies

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

One of my favorite paper analyzes how Edison and his team introduced the light bulb and the electric lighting in an industry dominated by gas illumination firms.

This classic article, still relevant today, helps to evolve our understanding of Edison from a lone inventor to the entrepreneur supported by collaborators, social ties and a stern determination to succeed. Furthermore, the elements of the business strategy such as robust design, are relevant to any innovator facing the tension between the established institutions and new ideas.

In 1878, a few gas companies dominated the lighting industry in New York. With assets invested in the business of about 1.5 billion dollars, these players had deep ties with the political and social ecosystem. Let us consider as an example, the political implications of the employed workforce or the network of suppliers for gas lamps or gas-related artifacts.

Despite severe issues of the electrical lighting including the lack of a billing system or deadly incidents due to the poor insulation of conductors, the new technology finally succeeded in displacing the established institutions.

There are two main reasons for this. First the basic idea constitutes an example of robust design: centrally generated electricity, later distributed to power an entire ecosystem of appliances, is not changed up to our days and still offers infinite options for re-invention and expansion (have a look at the video at the bottom of this post to see how we will be able to transmit information via light bulbs just in the near future).

Light bulb patent application. Photolithography reproduction. Date 1880

Light bulb patent application. Photolithography reproduction. Date 1880

Second, Edison employed skeuomorphs – design elements not functionally necessary imitating previously established designs – as counter-intuitive strategy to comfort the final users with something familiar and facilitate the adoption of new concepts. Instead of stressing the technical superiority of the electric light, he cloaked the novelty of the solution into the familiar features of the current institutions; for example he used the same tapping of the gas installations, the light intensity and color looked – by decision – similar to the low wattage flame emitted by gas burners, finally the billing of electricity was performed using meters, already known to users. According to his notebooks, Edison was well aware of the full potential of his invention and consciously decided to hide the part of it which was most distant to the current daily experience. This strategy of carefully balancing how much the understanding of users can be stretched from the actual base of knowledge contributed to the success of the electric light, possibly more than the technological superiority of the solution.

The text is rich of details highlighting the battle between the innovator (Edison) and the incumbents (gas companies) and I love to see that the advantages of electric light versus the gas illumination, given as granted nowadays, were deeply challenged at the time of inception.


Hargadon, A. B. and Y. Douglas (2001). “When Innovation Meets Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light.” Administrative Science Quarterly 46(3): 476-501.


Harald Haas, a professor of engineering at Edinburgh University, demonstrates how it is possible to stream a high resolution video using a light bulb.

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One thought on “Edison, the light bulb and disruptive technologies

  1. Anna

    I every time used to read post in news papers
    but now as I am a user of web so from now I am using net for content,
    thanks to web.

    Reply

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