For any inventor, receiving his or her first patent is a momentous occasion. It is proof from the highest levels of government that someone recognizes the value of the distinct innovation born out of that creator’s mind. U.S. Patent 90,646 was the first patent granted to a young inventor by the name of Thomas Alva Edison. His invention is one you probably never heard of, and it was the least-successful of all of his creations. Its failure taught him a valuable lesson that would help him become one of the greatest inventors of all time.
Thomas Edison was 22 years old when he received a patent for an electric vote recorder. He was inspired to create the device after observing the interminable amount of time it took members of the New York State legislature to vote on pending legislation. Edison’s device would dramatically speed up the process.
Edison’s invention permitted each legislator to cast a vote by simply moving a switch to a yes or a no position. That, in turn, transmitted a signal to a central recorder that listed the names of the members in two columns of metal type headed “Yes” and “No.” The recording clerk then placed a sheet of chemically-prepared paper over the columns of type and moved a metallic roller to print the vote results.
Upon receiving the patent, Edison went straight to took it to Washington, D.C., hoping to interest the U.S. Congress in purchasing the system. He demonstrated the apparatus to a committee of Congress and told the members it would allow them to cast their votes with efficiency and that they could dispense of the tedious business of having to report their votes by voice.
What Edison failed to take into account is that government actually values certain kinds of inefficiency. The chairman of the committee was decidedly unimpressed. He told Edison, “If there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” The slow pace of roll call voting in Congress and other legislatures allowed members to filibuster legislation or convince others to change their votes. Edison’s vote recorder wasn’t wanted, and it was never used.
The failure of his first patented invention could have disheartened Edison. Instead, it taught him a valuable lesson that would serve him for the rest of his remarkable life. He decided that he wouldn’t invent something without first determining whether there would be a market for the invention. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent,” he said. “Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
The lesson from the failure of the electric vote recorder set the stage for a remarkable career of successful inventions. Over the next 62 years, Thomas Edison received an additional 1,092 patents. He created the world’s first industrial research laboratory, where he proposed to turn out a minor invention every ten days and a “big trick” every six months. His big tricks included such things as the phonograph, the first practical incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera, and countless other innovations. He pioneered six industries that are worth more than $1 trillion today.
Edison’s lesson about turning failure into success should be learned by all of us. He famously said, “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
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