In 1878, Thomas Edison become interested in the light bulb. During the time open arch lights—strong electrical currents that jump the gap between two carbon rods—were starting to light the streets of France. The holy grail of lighting, however, remained the incandescent bulb containing a thin metal element encased in a glass bulb. After decades of experimentation by William E. Sawyer, Joseph W. Swan and others before them only poor results where obtained.
But Edison wasn’t like most inventors. He was no theorist instead favoring experiments to fancy equations. When a bright mathematician named Francis R. Upton came to work at Menlo Park to assist Edison in his light bulb adventure, Edison assigned him the task of calculating the volume of a pear shaped glass bulb. Upton carefully drew the exact shape on paper but before he could bust out his calculus skills, Edison became inpatient demanding an answer. To prove a point, Edison simply filled the bulb with water and poured the water into a measuring device to achieve the answer instantly.
Edison wasn’t always so brash but he demanded hard work. People who applied to work at Menlo Park always wanted to know two things: what was the pay and the hours. Edison's common response: “We don’t pay anything, and we work all the time.” Edison wasn’t joking. He worked around the clock taking only small cat naps. When others tired at the lab, he could be seen at his desk meticulously recording the results of his experiments.
And with that work ethic and Menlo Park's sizable lab, Edison publicly announced he would do what others couldn’t: make an incandescent bulb. Despite Edison’s track record of success, many in the academic community scoffed at his boastfulness considering the task too complicated for an experimenter with no formal education. Influential investors in New York felt otherwise and financed Edison creating the Edison Electric Light Company.
The investors made a good bet. No one in the world had more experience working with electric circuits than Edison. His knowledge convinced him of the importance of parallel circuits to subdivide the current to many bulbs but it was his realization that a high resistant lamp was needed instead of the low resistant lamp others were trying that pushed him on the right track.
But the real obstacle was finding an element that could glow brightly with enough resistance and wouldn’t burn out—something that eluded others for more than a generation. Carbon, Platinum, Boron, Chromium, and virtually every type of metal was tested with each substance carefully measured for endurance and resistance. He also experimented with different types of gases in the bulb all the while trying to get a better air tight vacuum. The dizzying amount of experimentations and failures would have overwhelmed others but still he plowed on.
Edison, who often said “If you come across anything you don’t thoroughly understand don’t rest until you run it down”, was running down many things he didn’t understand. But by taking careful measurements he was able to compare results which allowed him to eliminate possible elements. Platinum, for example, which others had experimented with extensively and brought some success in his experiments was abandoned.
During his experiments in late October 1879, Carbon was combined with tar and tried with surprising results. Later a cotton thread was carbonized and lasted 40 hours before burning out. On the right track, Edison tried other vegetable fiber materials like fishline, flax, cocoanut shell, hickory, twine, and cedar shavings. Nothing was left off limits. Even human hair was used. The winner was simple Bristol cardboard that lasted 170 hours. Eventually, however, bamboo was used in the bulbs and last 1200 hours. Edison would go on to light up entire neighborhoods in New York and the tiny Edison Electric Light Company would turn into General Electric.
What separated Edison from other inventors was not his genius smarts but his relentless dedication to his work. Edison himself understood this when he exclaimed: “The trouble with other inventors is that they try a few things and quit. I never quit until I get what I want!” Not only did he work hard but he was continually learning. When he wasn’t experimenting, he had his head buried in a book or technical journal.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that outliers in a field are not geniuses but rather overly dedicated individuals. Few would argue that Edison wasn’t an outlier but Gladwell would just say he was more dedicated. Edison, who made his own telegraph at age 15, was simply able to get more practice in before others his age.
Gladwell in his book introduces the notion that ten thousand hours of practice is needed before anyone can become great at a profession. He sites a study of young violinists all starting out at the age of 5. He begins:
“In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing—that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better—well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.”
“The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any 'naturals', musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”
Too many people think that those at the top are naturally gifted and talent alone got them there. Gladwell’s insight not only dents that thinking, it squashes it altogether. Anyone, no matter how stupid they may seem, can become an outlier if they work hard.
When I started my first job, I worked under Elton Wells an amazing Software Engineer. He was shockingly productive, thought of good designs, squashed bugs like an overzealous exterminator, and flat out got things done. Even more important than any natural talent Elton possessed was he simply out worked you.
You see most Software Engineers go to work do their thing for the minimum eight hours and then go home and do nothing more. The more I studied Elton, the more I came to understand he didn’t do that. He read MSDN articles, technical books, and coded on the weekends. While other programmers were trying to avoid anything related to their profession after hours, he was actively strumming his violin.
Through Elton, I learned that successful programmers continually learn and practice just like Edison. As I have progressed through the software world, that has become more apparent. Practice is not something you do once you become great but rather practice is something you do to become great. After all it was Edison who first said: “Genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.”