On October 21, 1879 Thomas Edison ran an electric current through a carbonized filament of cotton thread suspended in a glass vacuum tube. It glowed for nearly 14 hours, into the next day. Consequently, Edison and his team had invented the first truly workable light bulb.
It is appropriate that when an idea lights up our minds, we picture a light bulb going off above our heads. It is the perfect symbol of the values, understanding of the world, and virtues that encompass human achievement.
Edison, like all innovators, valued the material betterment of the human condition. Inventors and entrepreneurs are not ascetics who relish poverty, deprivation, or sickness when prosperity, abundance, and health are attainable. Additionally, they are certainly not akin to modern environmental extremists who see humans as trespassers on nature rather than nature as resources we can utilize for our flourishing — whether we walk through a forest because we value its beauty or harvest its trees to build homes.
Fortunately, all innovators realize that we have it in our power to change the world to better meet our needs, that progress is possible. We need not acquiesce in misery. They understand that we can use our rational capacity not only to discover the nature of the world around us but also apply that knowledge to the practical problems of material survival and improvement; most notably, we can create technology.
Wheels, bridges, building arches, printing presses, power engines, weaving looms, telegraphs, telephones, televisions, trains, phonographs, planes, automobiles, rockets, computers, cures for diseases — these are the great technological achievements that have made our lives better.
All successful innovators practice a set of entrepreneurial virtues that make achievement possible. Rationality, critical thinking, and astute analysis rather than wishful thinking, top the list. Independence, a commitment to one’s best ideas, is what led Steve Jobs to envision a world filled with personal computers. Courage to carry on and not fear failure is necessary as well.
Reflecting on his trials and tribulations in developing the light bulb, Edison said, “Before I got through, I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.”
To Edison, those 6,000 tests were not failures. Rather, they successfully eliminated materials that didn’t work! Achievers don’t passively accept the world around them. They make it better. Management innovator Peter Drucker put it well, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
We all must appreciate the need for a culture that celebrates achievement and innovation. Edison was celebrated as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Today, sadly, our culture often damns achievers who become wealthy because they supposedly enrich us all as exploiters rather than benefactors. That is why the free market, which allows entrepreneurs to innovate, is under threat.
Why not mark the anniversary of the invention of the light bulb as Human Achievement Day? Imagine if every year students reflected in class on what it took to make their classroom warm and comfortable when it’s cold outside, the path from power plant to the school’s HVAC; on what it took to create those big screen touch pads that replaced chalk blackboards; what medical breakthroughs it took to keep many of their parents, relatives, friends and even themselves alive and healthy; and, of course, what keeps those electric lights glowing!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and expert on regulatory and science policy. He has previously worked at the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Atlas Society, and Joint Economic Committee of Congress.