“Despite this bravado, the fact remained that the finest specimen of electric light in the Edison lab couldn’t last five minutes.”
Love him or hate him, we can learn a great deal from Thomas Edison. Sure, he showed up forty years into the evolution of the light bulb, tinkered with existing designs, and gets pretty much all the credit, but he also paved the way for the skunkworks research and rapid prototyping teams that are commonplace in R&D labs today.
As author Steven Johnson describes it in his excellent book How We Got to Now, Edison’s “greatest achievement may have been the way he figured out how to make teams creative: assembling diverse skills in a work environment that valued experimentation and accepted failure, incentivizing the group with financial rewards that were aligned with the overall success of the organization, and building on ideas that originated elsewhere.”
But Edison has more lessons for those who care to look; in fact, he was a master of the technology demonstration.
I’ve engaged in more than my fair share of high-pressure technology demonstrations, and have written a little bit about them before. So when I came to page 209 of How We Got to Now, I chuckled out loud (col):
Edison was also a master of what we would now call “vaporware”: He announced nonexistent products to scare off competitors. Just a few months after he had started work on electric light, he began telling reporters from New York papers that the problem had been solved, and that he was on the verge of launching a national system of magical electric light. A system so simple, he says, “that a bootblack might understand it.”
Despite this bravado, the fact remained that the finest specimen of electric light in the Edison lab couldn’t last five minutes. But that didn’t stop him from inviting the press out to Menlo Park lab to see his revolutionary lightbulb. Edison would bring each reporter in one at a time, flick the switch on a bulb, and let the reporter enjoy the light for three or four minutes before ushering him from the room. When he asked how long his lightbulbs would last, he answered confidently: “Forever, almost.”
I’m sure anyone in high-tech can relate. Demos are a tricky beast, get built in a hurry, and often (usually?) either don’t completely work or work but are prone to occasional and debilitating (hilarious?) failure.
It seems that things were much the same back in ~1879.
And from this wonderful historically accurate story, we can extract “Thomas Edison’s Guide to High-Tech Product Demos”:
- (optional) Scare off competitors by making bold claims
- Create prototype that sorta works a little
- Concoct demonstration environment to hide faults
- Wow onlookers
- (optional) Provide witty and memorable closing remark
So the next time you’re scrambling to pull together a demo for a customer, conference, tradeshow, webinar, etc., just remember that you walk a path trodden by no less than Thomas Edison.
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