Impressive vs. Important

An impressive technology will get noticed, but getting noticed is a necessary but insufficient bar to clear for success in the marketplace. The incandescent light bulb was an impressive idea in its time - so impressive that an illuminated light bulb has become the symbol of a good idea. 

Everyone knows the story of Edison’s invention of the light bulb, but the problem with the story that everyone knows is that Edison did not invent the light bulb. As Edison’s first patent application filing on an electric light acknowledged, “[e]lectric lights have been produced by a coil or strip of platina or other metal that requires a high temperature to melt, the electric current rendering the same incandescent.” United States Patent No. 214,636, April 22, 1879 (note: this is not even the patent to Edison’s key light bulb technology - that came later). We do not remember the large number of researchers who developed light bulbs before Edison not because they lacked an impressive technology, but because they lacked the important technology to make the light bulb viable for commercial use.

Edison’s success came from realizing that the impressive invention - the light bulb itself - still needed an important invention to be practical, and then he set to work making the important invention. Actually, Edison made several important inventions to make a viable light bulb, but in particular he realized the need for a new material to use as a filament. The platinum filaments previously used were expensive and impractical. The new filament material needed to function well, of course. It needed to give off enough light. The material had to last long enough to be practical, but it also had to be available in a volume and at a price that allowed for the bulbs to be produced and sold at an affordable price. 

After trying hundreds of different options, Edison made the important discovery: carbon in the form of “lamp black” applied to a fiber was an ideal candidate for an incandescent bulb filament if (but only if) the bulb was at a very low pressure. This was the focus of Edison’s United States Patent Number 223,898 (January 27, 1880). Edison’s ‘898 Patent was “narrow” in the sense that it covered only one very specific concept for what a light bulb could be, rather than a broad range of possible light bulbs; fortunately for Edison, however, the ‘898 Patent covered precisely what a light bulb needed to be in order to be commercially successful in its day. 

If even Thomas Edison’s idea that became synonymous with invention was more about the important technology than the impressive technology, today’s R&D work and the patent attorneys charged with securing rights to that work should not get too hung up on chasing the impressive instead of the important. Filing patent applications on impressive technologies is great when it can be done, but often the impressive technology has already been shown to the world and can no longer be patented, as was the case with Edison and the incandescent light bulb. In that case, spotting what new piece of the technology is important and patenting it is the key. Even if you can’t patent the light bulb, patenting the best light bulb is not a bad day’s work.

Note: For anyone interested in Thomas Edison, there are, of course, numerous biographies available. Beyond the typical biographies, Rutgers University has made an extensive amount of materials relating to Edison and his work available online.