Business outlook: The genius of hard work

Forget the notion that good ideas will strike you like lightning. The three keywords for smart solutions are: work, work and work.

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Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He should know. Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history, obtained 1,093 US patents, the most ever issued to a single individual. But his revolutionary inventions, such as the first successful electric light bulb, were not a matter of “Eureka!” moments where an idea flashed into his head, fully formed. In fact, he didn’t actually invent the light bulb, but rather he improved upon a 50-year-old idea. It was the long, hard work he put into making that and other ideas a reality that earned Edison his fame and fortune.

James Watt, the Scotsman who developed the steam engine, was also no stranger to hard work. A mathematical-instrument maker by trade, he had the opportunity in 1763 to repair a model of Newcomen’s engine, an early steam engine. Watt realized the steam engine could be made vastly more efficient by cooling the used steam in a condenser separate from the main cylinder. But it took two years of careful study and experimentation before he was ready to launch a large-scale experiment to test his theory. He needed money, as well as the capital to start manufacturing steam engines, should his experiments prove successful. Like many inventors, he had the idea but not the funds.

Genius alone did not account for the success of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the American brothers who pioneered powered flight in the early 1900s. They began their efforts to invent the airplane by carefully studying what others had done before them. The brothers took the time to do their homework. By understanding the failures and limitations of previous inventors and methodically testing various parts of their aircraft over a period of years, the Wrights were convinced that when they put their airplane in the air, it would fly.

These famous inventors had their share of brilliance, but more importantly, they had persistence, patience and the capacity to work long and hard to see their ideas crystallize into reality. In that regard, the process of invention or innovation has changed little in the past two centuries. It would be difficult to find an inventor who glided into a wildly successful future on sheer genius. Typically, inventors have had to either bring other skills to the table or find partners who could compensate for the capital or knowledge that they lacked.

“Very seldom is the inventor simply struck by an idea, as in the image of the big master isolated in his tower. It is very, very hard work,” says Christer Asplund, chairman of the Swedish Inventors Association, the world’s oldest association of inventors.

Even Edison, who became a celebrity in his own lifetime, never experienced those “Eureka!” moments where solutions came to him pre-packaged and ready to go, says Jim Quinn, writer-in-residence at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Ohio in the US.

“Edison actually started bragging that he had come up with a practical electric-lighting system before he had even begun working on the problem,” says Quinn, who is writing about Edison in honour of the 125th anniversary in 2004 of Edison’s electric light bulb.

“When he actually got down to work on the project, there were very specific technical challenges he had to solve. He had people working with him 12 to 16 hours a day, uring things out centimetre by centimetre, and he had to keep expanding his workforce. He had to invent fuses and light sockets, devices for maintaining constant voltage, an underground conductor network and much more. Edison deserves recognition as the first truly modern inventor. He put together the first R&D complex with mechanics, electricians, scientists and craftsmen of all types. They tackled pieces of the problem and just wrestled it to the ground through sheer effort.”

That kind of persistence and team effort is no less necessary today than it was in Edison’s time, but some aspects of today’s world have made the inventor’s life easier. The arrival of the Internet age is one of those benefits.

“Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can easily and without any cost through the Internet, find out what has been invented around the world in your field so that you can either abandon your idea or develop it in another direction,” says Farag Moussa, president of the International Federation of Inventors Associations (IFIA). The IFIA has launched an online inventors market at to help inventors commercialize their inventions.

Certainly, the commercialization of great inventions remains the struggle it was for men such as James Watt in the 1800s, who didn’t get his steam engine manufactured until he met his future business partner, Matthew Boulton, in 1768. The partnership gave Watt the freedom to focus his fertile mind on making improvements to the steam engine while Boulton built the business.

Modern inventors have gotten smarter when it comes to conquering the market. Lawrence Udell, executive director of the California Invention Center in the US and a mentor of inventors for the past 50 years, points to the example of James Fergason, who invented the nematic liquid crystal twist cell display, better known as the LCD, which paved the way for flat-panel displays for laptop computers and TV.

Fergason earned his wealth and fame because of a trait common to successful inventors, says Udell – never being completely satisfied. Inventors tend to continually work to refine, polish and re-tool their creations.

“Fergason’s secret of success was to keep inventing around his prior inventions,” says Udell. “Today he holds over 150 US patents and 500 foreign patents. He thought, ‘If this idea is that good, other people will invent around it and make it better, so instead of having others do it, I will do it myself.’ He didn’t just sit back on his laurels and say, ‘Wow, this is going to be great,’ but kept trying to improve on it.”

Jim Quinn agrees. “If you want to invent something and gain credit for it and make a lot of money, you will work and work and work,” he says. “With very few exceptions, inventors are people capable of getting so excited about ideas that they can focus on a problem hour after hour, day after day, for years.”

The spark of ingenuity is alive and well in the world today, reports Udell, who is the founder of more than 20 corporations. “Everywhere we go we have ideas, we see new products, and that stimulates our creativity. We think, ‘I could improve upon that.’ The incentive and motivation for inventors today is limitless, thanks in part to the sheer size of the economy and the flow of venture capital that did not exist 100 years ago.”

Imagine how big an empire Thomas Edison, James Watt or Orville and Wilbur Wright would have built, given this dream scenario.

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