What Modern Companies Can Learn from Thomas Edison’s Workspace

Thomas Edison’s lab was arguably one of his best inventions. Located in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and staffed with engineering geniuses like William J. Hammer, it was the birth place of his most famous innovations, including the light bulb. In recent years, the lab has found a new home at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and is now as famous in some circles as the inventions that poured out of it. No wonder, when you look at the lessons its example offers today’s businesses.

1. Open Space, Open Minds.
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Software firm Menlo Innovations owes both its name and its floor plan to Edison’s famous workspace.

“A lot of people don’t believe software development can be done in anything but library quiet,” says CEO Rich Sheridan. “I have 12 years of experience that says differently.”

Menlo Innovations skips the usual cubicles beloved by many software firms, and instead offers its workers an open space that’s “more cotton mill factory floor than monastery” — i.e. open, collaborative, and sometimes loud.

2. Be Flexible.
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Thomas Edison’s lab was inspired by machine shops, not office buildings. The idea was to allow workers to move freely around as needed, and to work wherever their duties took them on that particular day.

At Menlo Innovations, folks can plug in wherever they need to work. Electrical cables descend from the ceiling, making it easy for workers to move tables into whichever configuration makes sense for the project at hand.

3. Have (a Lot) of What You Need on Hand.
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Most companies today watch every penny, out of necessity. This often translates to skimpy office supplies, slow computers, and equipment that breaks down more than it functions.

Thomas Edison would not have approved. His lab had “a stock of almost every conceivable material” he might need, including (according to an 1887 newspaper article) “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels … silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell … cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores …” and so on.

4. Competition Is Great, But Collaboration Makes It Happen.
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Who really invented the light bulb? If you’re American, you’ll probably say Thomas Edison. If you’re English, you might say Joseph Swan. If you’re a history nerd, you’ll recite a string of names, including Warren De La Rue, James Bowman Lindsay, Edward Shepherd, Henrich Gobel, and yes, Swan and Edison.

Edison and Swan’s somewhat forced collaboration, due to patent issues, became the foundation for General Electric.

5. Seek Inspiration From Great Men and Women.
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We look to Edison to show us how to work innovatively. Edison, in turn, looked to other great thinkers to inspire him. For example, he was known to display Sir Joshua Reynolds’ quotation: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” The quote was posted over his desk and in other places throughout the lab.

So perhaps his least-known invention was actually the Successory.

Images: 1. Wikipedia.org, 2. CNN.com, 3. Sciencephoto.com, 4. Aviationancestry.com, 5. Wikipedia.org

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