The genius of multi-disciplinary teams

The lightbulb is synonymous with that flash of genius innovators are supposed to get when they hit on a big idea. Geniuses like Thomas Edison, who is the one credited with inventing the lightbulb in the first place of course.

But there’s a little more to the story of the lightbulb.

In his book How we got to now, Stephen Johnson explains how Edison was just one of many inventors who were trying to create electric light during the 19th Century.

Over half of them had cottoned on to the same basic formula as Edison (a carbon filament, suspended in a vacuum), and some had done that almost 40 years before him.

The thing that set Edison apart from his contemporaries was not a single moment of inspiration, or even his abilities as an inventor.

“Edison’s greatest achievement may have been the way he figured out how to make teams creative: assembling diverse skills in a work environment that valued experimentation and accepted failure.”

To invent the lightbulb Edison did not work alone. He assembled a multi-disciplinary team which included a mechanic, a machinist, a physicist, a mathematician and a dozen or so draftsmen, chemists and metalworkers.

This team where known as the muckers, and although they weren’t exactly a study in diversity, their particular mix of skills were Edison’s secret weapon.

Thomas Edison and The Muckers

After three years of testing and iterating the muckers hit on precisely the right formula and invented a functioning lightbulb.

Thanks to their range of skills, they also realised that the lightbulb by itself would be nothing but a curiosity piece.

So they designed a whole system, which included the ability to:

  • provide a reliable source of electric current to a whole neighbourhood,
  • distribute it to different households,
  • connect a large number of light bulbs together, and
  • gauge how much electricity each household was using.

It was this leap that lit up the Pearl Street District of Lower Manhattan in 1882 and set Edison apart from De Moleyns, Petrie or any of the other twenty-plus inventors who patented versions of the lightbulb between 1841 and 1879.

So the next time you see the lightbulb used as a symbol of genius, think of Edison and his multi-disciplinary team, who brought their skills together 135 years ago and, ultimately, lit up the world.

For more on how multi-disciplinary teams can improve how we make policy, see my debut post.

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