In “Thomas Edison Lit Up America With His Bright Ideas” (Investor’s Business Daily, 5-21-09, 5:53 PM ET), Marilyn Alva said:
Though Edison’s top achievements were in electricity and sound, he innovated in other fields ranging from radio-wave telecommunications to iron-ore mining and rubber.
He did solid research followed by experiments and prototypes.
“He wasn’t an expert in the beginning, but once he got interested in something he found a way to become an expert,” said Kelley, a founder of the Stanford Institute of Design, or d.School. “He was the best proof that if you’re good at innovating, you can apply it to almost any field and make a contribution.”
Edison, born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, had little formal education. But he was a voracious reader and curious, often taking things apart to find out how they worked. His constant questions irked at least one teacher, so his mother, a former teacher, home-schooled him.
She encouraged her youngest child to follow his passions. By 10, he was tinkering in a chemistry lab he set up in the basement. His father, a political gadfly from Canada and entrepreneur, had an extensive book collection at Thomas’ disposal.
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Thomas Edison knew how to reason. He knew how to apply certain methods (of thought) to a new field or problem so that he could quickly assimilate information and go on to do original, cutting-edge research. The Wright brothers did the same thing in learning how to fly and in making a better airplane.
They would often start by reading what had been done in a field or on a problem and by learning from experts. They would, I’d imagine, have a first-hand, independent frame of mind when they did these things. But then they’d go on to do their own experiments and original research.
And the things they discovered were things that made human life better, that helped us achieve values we need to live qua man. Edison and the Wright brothers were not divorced from practice and values. They were idea-oriented, practice-oriented, and value-oriented.
The key factor is knowing how to reason: how to integrate information, how to engage in induction, how to analyze and synthesize facts and principles, how to think out consequences and presuppositions. When you are doing original research, there is no one to learn from or copy. You cannot read it in a book — it is not there. Reality and your mind are isolated and alone. Reason, our faculty of conceptual awareness, is our only access to new knowledge.
Edison (in his career) is a good case study for thinking in principles, being cognitively independent, and applying rational methods to understand and live in the world. We are not all geniuses like Edison was, but we all are capable of being — and should be — independent, rational, and first-hand. We should each strive to realize our values; we’re each worth it.